21st February 2002

Humble yeast to help tackle cancer

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 bio-medical research.

In today's Nature (Thursday 21 February 2002), Dr Paul Nurse, who is Joint Director General of Cancer Research UK, and whose work on fission yeast was recently in the award of 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 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 S. 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."

Notes to editors

Cancer Research UK is a new charity with a mission to conquer cancer through world-class research. Cancer Research UK was formed on 4 February 2002 as a result of the merger of The Cancer Research Campaign and Imperial Cancer Research Fund. It is now the largest volunteer-supported cancer research organisation in the world. It has a dedicated team of 3,000 scientists and an annual scientific spend of more than £ 130 million - raised almost entirely through public donations.

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute was founded in 1992 as the focus for the UK sequencing efforts. As well as work on the human genome and large genomes of other species, the Sanger Institute is a leading centre for analysis of genomes from model organisms, bacteria, fungi and protozoa. Many projects are undertaken in collaboration with other genome centres and with user communities worldwide.

The Wellcome Trust is an independent research-funding charity, established under the will of Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936. It is funded from a private endowment which is managed with long-term stability and growth in mind. The Trust's mission is to foster and promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health.

The analysis of the sequence of the genome of S. pombe is published on Thursday 21 February 2002 in the journal Nature. The sequence of S. pombe has been released onto the internet throughout the life of the project.

Notes on the project

Schizosaccharomyces pombe is the sixth eukaryotic genome to be sequenced following

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute sequenced two-thirds of the fission yeast genome and carried out all the analysis. The second phase of the sequencing was carried out by a European Consortium led by the Sanger Institute. The Consortium consisted of major laboratories of the European Consortium that contributed to the S. cerevisiae genome project.

Initial funding was provided by the Wellcome Trust, during which around 3.8 Mb of sequence was produced. Towards the end of 1996 funding was secured from the European Commission for the major part of the project.

The genome of fission yeast (S. pombe) contains the smallest number of protein coding genes yet recorded for a eukaryote (organisms that, unlike bacteria, contain their genome in a nucleus inside the cell and are generally thought to be more complex), totalling 4824. Researchers identified highly conserved genes important for eukaryotic cell organisation, including those required for the cytoskeleton, compartmentation, cell-cycle control, proteolysis, protein phosphorylation and RNA splicing. For an overview of the scientific findings please click here.

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S. pombe News Item image is courtesy of Susan Forsburg.

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