The report, Systematic humanization of yeast genes reveals conserved functions and genetic modularity, published in this week’s issue of the journal Science, supports the view that different species use similar genetic tool kits to govern cellular functions.
“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,” said senior author Edward Marcotte, co-director of the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology at the University of Texas at Austin in the news release.
Let me pause here and just do a double take… Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology. Now, I am a huge science geek, but I’ll be the first to admit that tinkering with the building blocks of life itself does make a tad nervous. Hence the zombie apocalypse reference in the title of this story, but I digress.
As is usually the case, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The experiment opens up the potential of customizing yeast to test how different therapies could affect an assortment of mutations in the human genome related to disease, 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.
Of the 414 yeast genes researchers identified as essential for survival and growth, they found that 176 of those “essential” genes could be successfully humanized. The success rate was high for some functions like cholesterol production, but completely unsuccessful for such things as initiating DNA replication. This has been a big week for researchers working with “yeast model” genetic research. In the journal Nature Chemical Biology researchers reported that brewer’s yeast could be genetically engineered to produce opioid drugs like morphine as well as other compounds that typically have to be extracted from plants.
According to an NBC News report:
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.
With any luck, this yeast model genetic research will NOT usher in the zombie apocalypse as well.