The importance of yeast in science: Talk by Steve Aves
Susie Hewitt welcomed 20 members to this talk by Steve Aves, recently retired Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at Exeter University, saying how much she was looking forward to hearing more about the role of yeast beyond her present understanding of its function in the making of bread, beer and Marmite.
Steve opened his talk by explaining that a number of major scientific breakthroughs have been made using yeast cells since the 19th century, naming Pasteur, Buchner and Maria Manaseina as early pioneers in this field of biochemistry research. The critical importance of doing research using yeast is that the cells behave in much the same way as human cells do but are less complex. Therefore the outcomes of experiments conducted with yeast can build up an understanding of how molecular genetics works in humans – vital research that avoids the moral and ethical concerns that often arise in experimental work undertaken with humans or animals. Steve named some very useful products that have resulted from genetic engineering conducted with yeast cells; in particular a vaccine for hepatitis B, insulin and a rennet substitute used in making vegetarian cheese.
In recent decades the use of computers has transformed approaches to the design and execution of scientific research projects, as scientists now spend most of their time analysing results – often from large data sets generated by computer – and less of their time setting up and performing experiments and gathering the results in the laboratory. Steve stressed that today’s scientific research on yeast cells has ‘an awesome power’ both in terms of the amount of work it can achieve and the far-reaching effect the outcomes can have. As an example, Steve explained how identifying mutants within yeast cells is a first critical step in the process that can lead to advances in identifying and treating cancer cells in humans. The genetic analysis of cell division within yeast is fundamental to this research.
There followed an interesting question and answer session, after which Frances Canning gave the vote of thanks to our speaker. We all left knowing far more about the importance of yeast than we did at the start!