New & Noteworthy

Some Like it Hot

June 28, 2016

Like Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like it Hot”, some transcription factors take on dual roles. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

According to an AFI poll, the best comedy of all time was the 1959 film “Some Like It Hot.” In this classic screwball comedy two men have to dress up as women to escape the mob and still make money as musicians. All sorts of hilarity ensues as one of them falls in love with a woman and a man falls in love with the other as a woman.

The key to this comedy is that the two actors, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, have to play both the male and female parts. If they were played by separate actors and actresses, the movie would die at the box office. It would be a lethal mutation.

A new study by Solis and coworkers in Molecular Cell presents evidence that in yeast, the heat shock transcription factor Hsf1p is a bit like Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon—it plays dual roles, both in maintaining basal levels of various heat shock proteins and in turning the appropriate genes up in response to a heat shock. This is different than in mammalian cells where HSF1 is only responsible for turning up heat shock genes in response to a spike in temperature. Something else maintains the levels of these proteins needed for survival.

So yeast is more like the comedy “Some Like it Hot,” or perhaps Tootsie, while mammalian cells are more conventional comedies where different actors play the male and female roles. Because Hsf1p plays a dual role in yeast, its deletion causes the cell to die. Mammalian cells can survive without HSF1 as long as it doesn’t encounter any temperature spikes.

Solis and coworkers started out by coming up with a way to dissociate the genes that Hsf1 regulates under normal conditions from those upregulated under heat shock conditions. For this they used the “Anchor-Away” approach to remove Hsf1p from the nucleus under normal conditions.

Basically, they co-expressed HSF1 fused to FRB, the FKBP rapamycin-binding domain, and a ribosomal protein L13A-FKBP12 fusion. When they add rapamycin to this strain, the two proteins heterodimerize and Hsf1p is dragged out of the nucleus. They confirmed that Hsf1p was gone from the nucleus within a few minutes.

Next, they used native elongating transcript sequencing (NET-seq) 15, 30, and 60 minutes after rapamycin addition to see which genes were affected when Hsf1p left the nucleus. They found that only 25 genes were repressed and five were induced at these time points. Using RNA-seq and ChIP of Hsf1p they showed that Hsf1p was probably responsible for the expression of 18 of the 25 repressed genes and none of the induced ones.

So yeast Hsf1p is involved in the basal expression of a number of chaperone genes. In a set of experiments that I don’t have time to go over here, they also showed that most of the heat shock response was independent of Hsf1p in yeast. Their data suggests that Msn2/4p may be the key player instead.

They next did a similar set of experiments in mammalian cells but with a couple of differences. First off, these cells can survive HSF1 deletion, meaning they didn’t need to do anything fancy—they just used CRISPR/Cas9 to delete the gene in mouse embryonic stem cells and mouse embryonic fibroblasts.

Under normal conditions they found that the deletion of this gene caused two genes to go up in expression and two to go down. This is what you might expect by chance suggesting that in mammalian cells, HSF1 isn’t involved in basal expression of any genes.

They next used RNA-seq to compare gene expression of these cells and their undeleted counterparts under normal and heat shock conditions. They found a set of nine genes that were induced in both wild type cells and repressed in the HSF1-deleted cells under heat shock conditions. Eight out of nine of these are involved in chaperone pathways and they overlap surprisingly well with the yeast genes that Hsf1p controls under basal conditions.

Taken together these experiments paint an interesting picture. In yeast, HSF1 is mostly responsible for the basal expression of chaperone genes, and in mouse cells it is a key player in the heat shock response of a similar set of genes. This suggests that deletion of HSF1 is lethal in yeast because the decreased expression of one or more of the genes it regulates under normal conditions.


In cancer cells, HSF1 takes on dual roles, like both Curtis and Lemmon in “Some Like it Hot”. Image from

They tested this by expressing 15 of the 18 genes (three are redundant to some of the others) on four different plasmids and saw that a yeast strain that is deleted for HSF1 now survives. So one or more of these genes is responsible for yeast death in the absence of HSF1.

Through a process of elimination, Solis and coworkers found that the key genes were SSA2, a member of the HSP70 family, and HSC82, an HSP90 family member. The decrease in expression of these two genes cause by the deletion of HSF1 results in a dead yeast cell.

These experiments are so cool. In yeast, HSF1 makes sure there is enough of these chaperones around in good times to fold proteins properly and has a minor role in the heat shock response, while in mouse cells, the same gene plays no real role in basal levels of expression of chaperone genes and instead is critical for responding to heat shock. The protein regulates similar genes, just under different conditions.

These neat science experiments can tell us more about diseases, like cancer too. Turns out that some cancer cells may be more like yeast cells in that deletion of HSF1 stops them from growing and causes an increase in poisonous protein aggregates which may give us a new way to target HSF1-dependent cancers. For example, it may be that targeting Hsp70 or Hsp90 could be useful for treating HSF1-dependent cancers.

In cancer cells then, HSF1, like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Milton Berle in the Milton Berle Show, or Bugs Bunny in many different cartoon shorts, takes on dual roles in the cell. And as we learned from yeast, this could be these cancers’ Achilles heel.

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

Categories: Research Spotlight Yeast and Human Disease