The genetic secrets of yeast: Mo Motamedi, Ph.D.
When most of us think about the value of yeast, we think about yeast in terms of freshly baked bread or finely brewed beer. We don’t usually think that the lowly yeast cell can hold the key to unlocking cancer’s secrets. That is, unless you have had a chance to enjoy a chat with Mo Motamedi, Ph.D, in his cancer research laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Motamedi was a 2012 recipient of a two-year V Foundation V Scholar Award.
Dr. Motamedi almost bounces with enthusiasm as he describes what he has learned from yeast. The beauty of yeast cells is that they are a minimalist genetic organism and so the genes that we share with yeast are the most elemental and vital genes an organism needs for life. Against this de-cluttered genetic background, Dr. Motamedi looks for the effects of a molecular memory system—called epigenetics—which keeps the inheritance of genes “true” during rounds of cell division in both yeast and humans.
The fidelity of the genetic blueprint as cells divide is maintained in part by special proteins called histone deacytylases. Think of histone deacytylases as epigenetic controllers that control the shape of the DNA, making it more or less “open” for use. Keeping the DNA closed during cell division protects the fidelity of the genetic blueprint as the cell divides. When these controllers are disrupted, the cell may lose control of genes and a cancerous cell may result. Yeast cells can provide a simplified model for understanding how epigenetics plays a role in cancer formation. More importantly, Dr. Motamedi’s research may lead to the development of new drugs and new strategies for reprogramming cancer cells to make them more sensitive to therapy.
In his first year of funding, Dr. Motamedi has already identified two histone deacytylases that are key proteins that work together to protect cellular DNA. This work has launched additional projects that may help explain how cancer cells can lie dormant for years, only to become active again later in life. Dr. Motamedi credits his start-up funding from The V Foundation as critically important because it allowed him to quickly set up his laboratory and hire two additional post-docs to help him study new research avenues and fast-track his first grant application for major funding from NIH.