The effort to decipher the 3-billion-letter human genome is one of the biggest stories in the history of science. As well as revolutionising medicine, a clear understanding of genetics will also bring profound social and environmental implications. Examples include: personalised treatments to cure cancer and other degenerative diseases, crop solutions for the eradication of famine, and synthetic biological tools to help us solve the energy crisis.
One way to try and determine the genetic functionality of an organism is by genetic sequencing and comparison. Much can be determined by reading an organism’s genome sequence and comparing it with that of another, or by comparing the sequence of an individual’s healthy cell with that of a cancerous cell. However, because there are so many variables at play, the results are complicated to translate. Furthermore, gene sequencing is time consuming and expensive.
Another approach is by experimentation. Genetic experimentation on humans is, for the most part, illegal and so biological ‘models’ are commonly used. For example, monkeys, rabbits, mice or fruit flies are commonly used as test organisms. However, since all living things have been shown to have evolved from the same genetic source material, other much simpler organisms exist which are known to have a considerable number of genes which are identical to those in humans. One such organism is yeast.
Yeast is a member of the fungi family, and has been used by man for millennia in both brewing and bread making. Remarkably, it shares about a quarter of its 6000 genes with those from human cells. Since this single-cellular organism is much older in evolutionary terms than humans, it can be assumed that the shared genes are fundamental to cell health. Yeast reproduces in a matter of hours and can do so both sexually and asexually. Most yeasts are not pathogenic and so are not dangerous to use. It’s cheap to work with, yeast colonies are small and many experiments can easily be conducted in a controlled fashion on standard Petri dishes. For these reasons, yeast has become a very powerful and popular model organism for study. In fact, yeast was fully sequenced before the human genome and more is known about the function of yeast genes than any other organism.
The CSF intends to raise funds, mainly by donations through the website, and promote yeast genetics by sponsoring students, conferences and workshops around the world.