I’m busily house-hunting, but here’s a short science post anyway (even if for some reason I don’t appear to be showing up on the main “Just Science 2008” feed…)
Yeast have sex.
Of course, it’s a bit different from the way we multicellular organisms handle the process. For one thing, instead of “male” and “female”, they have “a” and “?”. No, I don’t know who came up with this bizarre naming scheme and yes, I also think whoever came up with it ought to be slapped, or at least forced to explain him- or herself in public.
Like humans, yeast cells have multiple chromosomes. Unlike humans, yeast are normally haploid (humans are diploid). [UPDATE: The review paper I cite in the next post suggests this statement may not be quite so clear-cut.]
Yeast spend most of their time reproducing asexually by “budding” – they make a copy of each of their chromosomes, then shove them all into a little “bud” of cell wall material along with enough enzymes to get started, and the bud then detaches and starts its life as a an independent cell. A clone of its parent cell, but independent anyway.
Yeast can also reproduce sexually, however. Both “a” and “?” cells excrete very tiny proteins referred to as “mating factors” – one type for “a” and one type for “?”. These factors inhibit DNA copying and budding in cells of the opposite “sex”, and instead helps trigger a process whereby cells of opposite “sexes” literally merge to form a single diploid cell. In
athe same process of similar to meiosis by which reproductive cells of animals are made, this diploid cell can then make copies of each chromosome (giving a total of four copies of each chromosome – two copies of one parent cell’s chromosomes and two of the other). The parent cell then splits itself into four spores, each containing one more or less randomly-chosen copy of each chromosome. This little trick allows yeasts to reshuffle chromosomes around the population, helping to find and maintain the most advantageous combination of versions of each gene in the cell for the environment in which the population is living.
A practical side-effect of this is that you can effectively breed yeasts, by combining cultures with different characteristics. Hypothetically, many of the yeasts from each culture will end up “mating” with yeasts from the other culture, and if you have a good way of selecting cells that have the combined traits of both strains that you want you can easily make your own new naturally-recombinant strain.
This also seems to relate to why there don’t seem to be any viruses of yeasts…but I’ll save that for another post.