Despite their small size, yeasts are undisputed titans in evolutionary terms. The genetic diversity of the 100,000 known species rivals the entire chordate phylum, thanks to yeast's short lifespan, rapid reproduction, and small genomes.
Consequently, comparative genomic studies with yeast reveal a molecular diversity never before anticipated.
The three Hot Papers presented here describe yeast genome evolution in unprecedented detail, providing compelling evidence for whole-genome duplication - a controversial theory first suggested in 1970.
Doubling Up To Evolve
Microbiologist Peter Philippsen and colleagues at the University of Basel, Switzerland, described the evolution of Saccharomyces cerevisiae by comparing it with Ashbya gossypii, a filamentous fungus sharing more than 90% homology.
This five-organism cross-reference "is probably the best comparison of the relationship between yeast species," says Fred Sherman of the University of Rochester. "It gave a detailed analysis of the evolution of certain species and a clear picture of the pathway of evolution."
Much more can still be gleaned from yeast species. "We don't know if there are evolutionary gaps between clades," says Dujon. Key molecular mechanisms of evolutionary history after duplication are still not clear.
Presently, there are twenty-five complete yeast genomes representing different species, says Souciet. "Our future goal is to have a better understanding of yeast species that are very, very different to discover new kinds of organization."
Databases set up by Souciet and Dujon
Other groups are now setting their sights on yeast protein activities and interactions from various species. Philippsen says his group is currently focused on investigating proteins of S. cerevisiae and A. gossypii. "It turns out that several of the orthologous proteins tested do not play the same cellular roles in both organisms."
Johnston says he and his colleagues have moved past the sequencing phase of such projects. In collaboration with Mike Snyder at Yale University, Johnston's team is now using protein arrays to identify DNA-binding proteins and to begin assembling a regulatory network. Kellis says he and his colleagues are studying network evolution in the context of whole genome duplication, now widely recognized in plant, tree, fungal, and vertebrate lineages.
Although simple, yeasts are quite evolved, and the basic methods to study the organism have given scientists a head start on understanding genome evolution of more complex organisms. Lund University microbiologist Jure Piskur says that the scope of these yeast studies has extended far beyond fungi. "The tools developed in these papers can be used for any other organism."