Yale Yeast Genome Study Could Lead to Further Understanding of Diseases Like Cancer

In the largest genome project of its kind to date, Yale scientists have succeeded in fully characterizing the function of the yeast gene, furthering understanding of how human cells work.

“While the human genome project so far has focused on the discovery of new genes, our study has taken gene discovery to the next level by figuring out how the genes work,” said Michael Snyder, professor and chair of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale. “We were pleasantly surprised to discover new genes in the process.”

Because as many as 70 percent of yeast genes are strikingly similar to human genes, information about the yeast gene is expected to enhance understanding about human genes and may provide insight into human diseases, said Snyder, whose work is published in the November 25 issue of Nature.

“When a human gene is discovered that has been implicated in a genetic disease such as cancer, knowing how the accompanying yeast gene works can help in designing appropriate treatments to help cure the disease,” Snyder said. “The yeast gene is basically a small person. It is very easy to manipulate and is very similar to the cellular processes of human cells.”

During the five-year study, Snyder’s team invented a novel method of inserting pieces of DNA throughout the yeast genome.

This method helps characterize the yeast gene by determining when the genes are active and also creates mutations in genes so that the functions of the genes can be analyzed. The Yale team analyzed 2,000 genes, or approximately one third of the genes encoded in the yeast genome.

“We have discovered new genes and we can now help determine functions for many genes that had been discovered previously, but which had not been characterized,” said Snyder, who is also a professor of biophysics and biochemistry at Yale. “It helps us understand both the genetic blueprint and what that blueprint actually does.”

The study establishes both an information database and a set of tools that many researchers in the scientific community can use.

“Thousands of people have visited our database to help learn new things about the genes that they may either already be studying or interested in studying,” said Snyder. “This helps give them clues to what experiments to try next. Having one thousand labs with the tools to analyze thousands of genes will provide the most detailed understanding of gene function imaginable. By comparing the characteristics of thousands of genes, we can understand relationships that we did not realize existed before.”

Snyder’s team consisted of researchers from several Yale laboratories, including Shirleen Rodeur of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; Perry Miller of the Center for Medical Informatics and the Department of Anesthesiology at Yale School of Medicine; and Mark Gerstein of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-980-2222