By Ewen Callaway
For millions of years, brewer’s yeast and its close relatives have packed their DNA into 16 distinct chromosomes. Now, two teams have used CRISPR gene-editing to stuff all of yeast’s genetic material — save a few non-essential pieces — into just one or two chromosomes. The feat represents the most dramatic restructuring yet of a complex genome and could help scientists understand why organisms split their DNA over chromosomes. And, to the researchers’ surprise, the changes had little effect on most functions of the yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae).
“That was the biggest shocker — that you can just get away with this and yeast seem to shrug its shoulders,” says Jef Boeke, a geneticist at New York University whose team jammed the yeast genome onto a pair of chromosomes1. A China-based group used a different technique to make yeast with one ‘super-chromosome’2. Both teams report their findings in Nature on 1 August.
Yeast belongs to the eukaryotes, the branch of life that includes humans, plants and animals and whose cells store genetic material in a membrane-bound nucleus. But the number of chromosomes that eukaryotes have varies wildly and seems to have no correlation with the amount of genetic information they possess. In humans, genetic material is spread over 46 chromosomes, whereas male jack jumper ants (Myrmecia pilosula) have just 1. Single-celled brewer’s yeast — whose genome, at 12 million DNA letters long, is hundreds of times shorter than that of humans — boasts 16 chromosomes.
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