Robots Eavesdrop on Cellular Discussions

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NIGMS Communications Office

Imagine visiting a library full of books that you couldn't read. In a sense, this is the scientific dilemma facing biologists across the globe. Researchers have in hand boatloads of genetic information--billions of DNA letters that spell out the instructions for life in organisms as diverse as yeast, worms, flies, and humans. The problem is that, to a great degree, no one knows what all these genes do. And even in the cases where scientists do know, even more puzzling is how cell parts communicate with each other, often through physical contact. While scientists have developed powerful approaches to determine which of the thousands of genes are "turned on" in a particular cell, they haven't had a "guidebook" to tell them which gene products interact physically.

For the first time, researchers working with the model organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker's yeast) have figured out a way to record the "conversations" taking place simultaneously between thousands of molecules inside a single cell. Using robots to monitor the goings-on of thousands of individual yeast cells growing on a small plastic grid, Dr. Stanley Fields at the University of Washington and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Peter Uetz have accomplished a biological milestone in determining which molecules in a cell "talk" to others by making physical contact. To achieve this feat, the researchers made use of robotic devices to automate state-of-the-art, but commonly used, molecular biological techniques.

"Listening in" on which proteins physically talk to other proteins is a critical task for researchers, since all cells rely on extensive and ongoing molecular discussions to carry out life's functions--everything from breathing to memory. When the complete, ordered sequence of the human genome is available to researchers in the next couple of years, a similar strategy will likely be possible using human cells. In the near term, scientists all over the world studying yeast cells as a model for understanding human health and disease will be able to use this information to advance their research.


Uetz P, Giot L, Cagney G, Mansfield TA, Judson RS, Knight JR, Lockshon D, Narayan V, Srinivasan M, Pochart P, Qureshi-Emili A, Li Y, Godwin B, Conover D, Kalbfleisch T, Vijayadamodar G, Yang M, Johnston M, Fields S, and Rothberg JM. A comprehensive analysis of protein-protein interactions in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Nature 2000;403:623-7.

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Writer: Alison Davis, Science Writing Contractor