It's Alive! Yeast With Human DNA Raises New Genetic Possibilities
Edward Marcotte and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin created hundreds of strains of humanized yeast by inserting a single human gene into each strain and turning off the corresponding yeast gene.Jacqui Tabler
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"It's a beautiful demonstration of the common heritage of all living things — to be able to take DNA from a human and replace the matching DNA in a yeast cell, and have it successfully support the life of the cell," senior author Edward Marcotte, co-director of the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a news release.
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The experiment also raises the prospect of customizing yeast to test how a range of therapies could affect assorted disease-related mutations in the human genome — without putting the humans at risk.
"We could find out if one of the standard treatments would work on your particular version of the gene, or if maybe another drug would be even better," said UT-Austin biologist Claus Wilke, a co-author of the Science paper.
The researchers identified 414 yeast genes that were considered essential for survival and growth, and tried replacing them with human genes that performed a similar function. They found that 176 of those "essential" genes could be successfully humanized. The success rate was high for certain functions (such as making cholesterol), but zero for others (such as initiating DNA replication).
The findings drew a warm reception from other biologists. "It's quite amazing," Matthew Hahn of Indiana University told Science Now. "It justifies continuing working in yeast as a model ... to help understand human genes," Nevan Krogan of the University of California in San Francisco told The Scientist.
The prospect of home-brewing synthetic morphine from plain old sugar set off alarm bells in the scientific community. Policy experts are calling for tighter regulation of yeast-based manufacturing methods — a field of research that promises to usher in an age of cheaper biofuels, custom-made medicines and healthier kinds of beer, wine and bread.
Alan Boyle is the science editor for NBC News Digital. He joined MSNBC.com at its inception in July 1996, and took on the science role in July 1997 with the landing of NASA's Mars Pathfinder probe. Boyle is responsible for coverage of science and space for NBCNews.com.
Boyle joined NBCNews.com from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he was the foreign desk editor from 1987 to 1996. Boyle has won awards for science journalism from numerous organizations, including the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Science Writers. Boyle is the author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference." He lives in Bellevue, Wash.