New & Noteworthy

Conformity Preferred in Yeast

March 25, 2015

In a classic Apple ad, the world is a gray, dreary place where everyone is the same. In charges a woman dressed in brightly colored clothing who hurls a hammer into a big black and white screen, smashing the old conformist world order. Individuality can now blossom.

Mother Nature frowns on mutations that add to cell to cell variation in gene expression. Image by SUNandMooN363 via Creative Commons

This is a powerful story for people, but it turns out that if Mother Nature had her druthers, she would like that woman to either stay at home or dress and act like everyone else. At least this is true if we are talking about individuals that are genetically identical. In this case, alleles that cut down on cell to cell variation tend to be the ones that prosper.

This is confirmed in a new study in Nature in which Metzger and colleagues in the Wittkopp lab showed that there is a selection against mutations that cause increased variation between individuals in the S. cerevisiae TDH3 gene. In other words, mutations that cause more “noise” are selected against. The squeaky wheel is eliminated.

The TDH3 gene encodes glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH), an important metabolic enzyme. Yeast cells can survive a deletion of this gene, but their fitness is greatly reduced. Overexpression of the gene also has noticeable effects. This suggested to the researchers that the level of TDH3 expression would be under selection pressure during evolution.

Metzger and coworkers compared the promoters of the TDH3 gene from 85 different strains of S. cerevisiae and found that the promoter had undergone selection out in the wild. The authors were interested in why certain polymorphisms were selected for and why others were selected against. To try to tease this out, they compared the activities of evolved changes to randomly selected ones.

The authors first used the sequences of the 27 haplotypes they saw in the 85 strains to predict what the original, ancestral promoter probably looked like. They then re-created this sequence and also sequences that represented the most likely intermediates on the way to the current promoters. They linked each of these promoter sequences to a yellow fluorescent protein (YFP) reporter and looked at mean activity and expression noise. In other words, they looked at how much promoter activity there was in aggregate and how much it varied between individual cells for the 10,000 cells in each culture.

They next set out to generate a pool of polymorphisms that didn’t make the cut during evolution, so they could compare these to the successful ones. To do this, they individually mutated 236 G:C to A:T transitions throughout the promoter region. They chose this transition because these are the most common spontaneous mutations seen in yeast and the most common SNP seen in this promoter out in the wild.

Now they were ready to do their experiment! Comparing the randomly created mutations to the evolved changes, they looked at both the overall level of expression and how much variation there was between each of the 10,000 individual cells in the tested culture.

What they found was that the effects on the mean level of activity were pretty comparable between the “selected” mutations and the random ones. But the same was not true for individual variation. The random mutations were much more likely to increase expression noise compared to the “selected” mutations.

From these results the authors conclude that there is a selection against mutations that increase the level of noise. In fact, they go a step further and conclude that at least for the TDH3 promoter, there was more of a selection against noise than there was a selection for a particular level of activity. It was more important that individuals had consistent activity than it was to have some mean level of activity.

This makes some sense, as a cell is a finely tuned machine where all the parts need to work in harmony together to succeed. If one part is erratic and shows different levels of activity in different individuals, then some of those individuals won’t do as well and so won’t survive.

This also means that certain paths to a more fit organism will be selected over others. And it could be that organisms miss out on some potential fitter states because they can’t survive the dangerous evolutionary journey that would be needed to get there.

So the cell prefers that all the parts work together in a predictable way. When you’re a population of individuals that are more or less genetically identical, nonconformists are dangerous.  The gray sameness of the Nineteen Eighty-Four world is preferable to a more bohemian atmosphere where diversity is celebrated.

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: evolution , Saccharomyces cerevisiae , promoter