Graduate students carried out the experiments. Image by Mavor et al (CC BY 4.0)

Yeast in a class of their own

Graduate students report how genetics and chemical stresses interact to affect the fitness of yeast cells.

Life’s Building Blocks
3 min readMay 25, 2016


The ability of an organism to grow and reproduce, that is, it’s “fitness”, is determined by how its genes interact with the environment. Yeast is a model organism in which researchers can control the exact mutations present in the yeast’s genes (its genotype) and the conditions in which the yeast cells live (their environment). This allows researchers to measure how a yeast cell’s genotype and environment affect its fitness.

Ubiquitin is a protein that many organisms depend on to manage cell stress by acting as a tag that targets other proteins for degradation. Essential proteins such as ubiquitin often remain unchanged by mutation over long periods of time. As a result, these proteins evolve very slowly. Like all proteins, ubiquitin is built from a chain of amino acid molecules linked together, and the ubiquitin proteins of yeast and humans are made of almost identical sequences of amino acids.

Although ubiquitin has barely changed its sequence over evolution, previous studies have shown that — under normal growth conditions in the laboratory — most amino acids in ubiquitin can be mutated without any loss of cell fitness. This led David Mavor and colleagues to hypothesize that treating the yeast cells with chemicals that cause cell stress might lead to amino acids in ubiquitin becoming more sensitive to mutation.

To test this idea, a class of graduate students at the University of California, San Francisco grew yeast cells with different ubiquitin mutations together, and with different chemicals that induce cell stress, and measured their growth rates. Sequencing the ubiquitin gene in the thousands of tested yeast cells revealed that three of the chemicals cause a shared set of amino acids in ubiquitin to become more sensitive to mutation.

This result suggests that these amino acids are important for the stress response, possibly by altering the ability of yeast cells to target certain proteins for degradation. Conversely, another chemical causes yeast to become more tolerant to changes in the ubiquitin sequence. The experiments also link changes in particular amino acids in ubiquitin to specific stress responses.

Mavor and colleagues show that many of ubquitin’s amino acids are sensitive to mutation under different stress conditions, while others can be mutated to form different amino acids without effecting fitness. By testing the effects of other chemicals, future experiments could further characterize how the yeast’s genotype and environment interact.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Determination of ubiquitin fitness landscapes under different chemical stresses in a classroom setting” (May 10, 2016).

eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
This text was reused under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.