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Humble yeast to help tackle cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

20 February 2002

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A British led international team of scientists has broken the genetic code of fission yeast, a development which is likely to have major implications for the future of cancer and other bio-medical research.

In Nature1, Dr Paul Nurse, who is Joint Director General of Cancer Research UK, and whose work on fission yeast and cell division recently led to the award for the Nobel prize for Medicine, and Dr Bart Barrell and Val Wood, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge, report their analysis of the genome of fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe). Fifty of the yeast genes were found to have significant similarity with genes involved in human diseases, including cystic fibrosis, hereditary deafness and non insulin dependent diabetes, and half were found to be cancer related.

Dr Nurse comments: “Biomedicine depends on our study of model organisms, which can provide key insights into the way in which the more complex human genome works. The genome fission yeast is only the sixth higher (eukaryotic) life form to be decoded. Significantly, many decisions the humble yeast cell makes in cell division use genes that are closely related to genes implicated in many human cancers: this small organism could prove vital in helping to better understand and treat cancer and other diseases.”

Because yeast cells are easier to study than human cells, the team will be able to gain a better understanding of what each gene controls, and how they may be involved in cancer and other diseases in humans.

Prof Gordon McVie. Joint Director General of Cancer Research UK, adds: “This is a huge step forward in understanding the basic biology behind cancer. Cells are the basic blocks upon which life is built, and by understanding how they grow and develop, we will be able to develop new treatments to fight cancer – this research will help towards that goal.”

Val Wood, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, adds: “Each step in our study of genomes brings new and surprising understanding of the common basis that underlies the way cells work. In this international collaboration we have provided high-quality sequence and precise analysis of the genes buried in the fission yeast genetic code, demonstrating the value of sharing genomic information. Through this shared effort, the genome of pombe is one of the best annotated of any non-bacterial cell. As well as finding cancer-related genes, we have begun to illustrate how other functions in this, perhaps the simplest complex cell, can bring new tools to understanding ourselves and our place in evolution.”


  1. Nature415 21 February 2002