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Yeast holds the key to humans’ genetic response to stress, herbicide exposure


Yeast’s ability to grow, divide, age and metabolize food is similar to human cells and provides researchers with a nearly perfect specimen to study cell processes and genetic variation. 

Biologist Jennifer Gallagher is taking advantage of the organism’s functions to examine how an individual would respond to stress at a molecular level, and the effects herbicides such as the common household weedkiller RoundUp, have on genes.

“Because we all have the same ancestor, as life diversified, the same biochemical pathways were just elaborated on,” said Gallagher an assistant professor of biology at West Virginia University. “You can take most of the human genes and put them in yeast and they will function." 

To understand how individual’s respond to stress, Gallagher is looking at small variations in the genetic makeup that could explain why people have different reactions to stress. 

Gallagher is also looking at genes that could are regulating the response to herbicides, such as RoundUp.

In 2015, an international agency declared glyphosate, the primary ingredient in the popular product, a “probable human carcinogen.”

“RoundUp is not toxic to people in acute doses,” said Gallagher. In plants and yeast, it inhibits a pathway that humans don’t have. Gallagher says that by studying yeast, we can determine whether there are other pathways for RoundUp to affect humans. 

Gallagher has received a $250,000, two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study genetically diverse strains of yeast collected from all over the world and different types of environments. The grant will also fund an outreach partnership with the WVU Earl L. Core Arboretum called, “Information Acquired by Students who Know West Virginia Has Yeast,” or I ASK WHY.

Forty years ago, there was no human resistance to --- or ability to withstand the effects of RoundUp, Gallagher said. Gallagher plans to pinpoint the cause behind organisms’ ability to adapt to herbicide exposure.

Yeast, she added, can be preserved for decades, allowing Gallagher’s research team to compare the effects of RoundUp on yeast from one hundred years ago compared to now.

 “If you are trying to develop a treatment, you can’t do so by studying one patient, and that’s essentially what the field has been doing,” said Gallagher. “We can get a bigger picture by studying these other strains and it will help develop the tools that we need for our research.”

Photo Credit: Matthew J. Winans

Tagged with Biology