Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Who loves the lowly eukaryote known as baker's yeast?
"The truth is that no one really cares how budding yeast divides," said Angelika Weis-Amon, assistant professor of biology. "What people do care about is a cell cycle disease called cancer." Ordinary baker's yeast turns out to be such a good model for human cells that many researchers are studying the intricacies of its reproductive process.
Why all the focus on the basic regulatory mechanisms governing cell division? Cancer is a disease of the cell cycle in which cell division has gone haywire. Professor Weis-Amon described the advantages of using yeast in cancer research at a January 11 Spark Forum lecture.
"It was a big surprise to everyone" when researchers found that if yeast is missing a crucial protein needed for cell division, a human gene implanted in the yeast can take over to produce the needed protein, she said. "After that discovery, the field progressed at an incredible speed," said Professor Weis-Amon, who is particularly interested in how mitosis, or the dividing up of genetic material, is regulated.
In addition to being a good model for human cell division, yeast is "cheap, nonhazardous and fast," she said.
In the next 25 years, researchers would like to see a detailed molecular understanding of all proteins involved in the cell cycle, how the cycle is controlled by developmental signals, and assays for profiling individuals with increased susceptibility for certain types of cancer.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 26, 2000.