On the origin of subspecies

February 11, 2009

Scientists have sequenced over seventy strains of yeast, the greatest number of genomes for any species.

"Analysing so many strains has helped us to bring the small branches of Darwin's 'Tree of Life' into focus," said Dr Steve James of the National Collection of Yeast Cultures (NCYC) at the Institute of Food Research.

"We can sift through billions of DNA bases to clearly spot a wild yeast or the mosaic genome of a recent hybrid," says Dr Ian Roberts, leader of the NCYC research team and the collection's curator.

"This is a valuable test bed for the 1000 genomes project, in which the genomes of 1000 people are being sequenced," said Professor Ed Louis from the University of Nottingham. "This number of organisms has never been sequenced before."

The basic machinery of yeast is surprisingly similar to that of humans, and the project is already helping experts to develop the tools necessary for studying human genetic variation. Yeast can also be used to develop and test new drugs, such as for cancer.

The analysis to be published in Nature on Wednesday enables the scientists to study genetics in much finer detail than was ever possible for Darwin. They are able to see the differences within a species and use this knowledge in understanding yeast biodiversity and exploiting it for human benefit.

"Amongst other things, this dataset will help us to understand how yeast probiotics contribute to gut health," says Dr Roberts.

The scientists analysed strains that have long been associated with human activity (such as baking, wine and sake) and wild strains, mostly from oak bark. They found that rather than all being derived from one common ancestor, humans have domesticated yeast strains at many points in history and from many different sources.

The association between man and yeast stretches back thousands of years. Recent findings from the Malaysian rainforest of chronic intake of alcoholic nectar by wild treeshrews suggest that the association between fermented beverages and primates is ancient and not exclusive to humans.

Yeast production is a multi-billion dollar industry for brewing, baking, biofuel production, probiotics, and medical applications. The strains used in this study are publicly available alongside several thousand other yeasts at www.ncyc.co.uk.

The collection is supported at the IFR by the BBSRC and seeks to make yeast strains and knowledge available to industrial and academic scientists in an equitable and efficient manner. The IFR is an Institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
-end-
Contacts

IFR Press Office

Photos and footage of yeast available.

Zoe Dunford, Tel: 01603 255111, email: zoe.dunford@bbsrc.ac.uk

Andrew Chapple, Tel: 01603 251490, email: andrew.chapple@bbsrc.ac.uk

Nottingham University

Professor Ed Louis on +44 (0)115 823 0375, ed.louis@nottingham.ac.uk or Media Relations Manager Lindsay Brooke in the University's Communications Office on +44 (0)115 9515751, lindsay.brooke@nottingham.ac.uk

Notes to editors

Full reference: 'Population genomics of domestic and wild yeasts', DOI 10.1038/nature07743

The mission of the Institute of Food Research (www.ifr.ac.uk) is to undertake international quality scientific research relevant to food and human health and to work in partnership with others to provide underpinning science for consumers, policy makers, the food industry and academia. It is a company limited by guarantee, with charitable status, grant aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (www.bbsrc.ac.uk).

The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings. More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent'. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.

Norwich BioScience Institutes

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