We’ve recently started writing articles for Al Jazeera online – go to their website to read the whole of this piece explaining how tiny yeast cells are helping researchers unlock the secrets of cancer.
For more than five thousand years, humans have harnessed the power of yeast to brew beer and leaven bread, even though they may have attributed the bubbles of fermentation to mysterious forces rather than fungal micro-organisms.
Over recent decades, humble baker’s and brewer’s yeasts have made it out of the kitchen and into the research lab. Although humans and yeast inhabit completely different branches of the evolutionary tree – animals having branched off from fungi around one and a half billion years ago –we still share strong similarities with our single-celled distant cousins. Around forty per cent of human genes are also found in yeast, including the fundamental genetic instructions that tell cells when to grow and divide.
While this process of cell division is highly useful (not to mention tasty) when you use yeast to make beer or bread, it also lies at the heart of human cancer. The disease is caused by cells in our own body multiplying out of control to form solid tumours such as breast, bowel or lung cancer, or ‘liquid cancers’ affecting immune cells in the blood, more commonly known as leukaemia. And it’s not just human and yeast cells that share the same genetic drivers for division. A similar set of genes are used to control cell growth in virtually all living cells, although very simple organisms like bacteria do things differently.
Over the years, yeast has proven to be a valuable model organism to help researchers pin down these drivers, with much less mess and fuss than other life-forms. They’re easy and quick to grow in the lab, reproducing in just a few hours – human and animal cells can take a day or more – and needing little more than nutrient broth or jelly and a warm incubator to keep them happy.
Understanding the genes that drive cell growth is essential if we’re to truly get to grips with cancer and develop more effective therapies. Two people who’ve made a huge impact in this area are Cancer Research UK scientists Professor Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Tim Hunt, They won a Nobel prize in 2001 (along with US researcher Dr Leland Hartwell) for their discovery in the early 1980s that the genes driving cell division are the same from yeast to plants, animals to humans, and how they work together to make cells multiply.
Image from Wikimedia Commons