University of Leicester eBulletin

Re-Creation in the Lab

March 2003
No 67

Geneticists from across the UK - including the world-renowned Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester - have examined a process that leads to the creation of new species and engineered it in a lab.

The work will have wide-ranging ramifications, from agriculture to medicine.

Professor Ed Louis, of the Queen's award winning Department of Genetics at Leicester, along with colleagues at the University of Manchester and The Institute of Food Research, Norwich, report in the 6 March issue of NATURE that one process that leads to the creation of new species can be engineered in the lab to study its role in the evolution of yeasts.

Professor Louis said: “The underlying evolutionary mechanisms that lead to the creation of new species generally fall into three categories.

“One mechanism is through major gene differences, one occurs via general sequence divergence and finally there one involves chromosomal rearrangements.

“In previous work we published in NATURE, we ruled out chromosomal rearrangements as the major force in the evolution of current yeast species. In other work we ruled out major gene differences and found evidence for general sequence divergence behind current species barriers.

“Despite this we know that chromosomal rearrangements do have a role in keeping species separate even if they are not the sole cause of speciation. In order to test the role of chromosomal rearrangements in the speciation of yeasts, we engineered changes in one species such that it was now equivalent to a related species.

“Originally these two species, with chromosome differences, could mate but were not fertile. In the engineered species crosses, now with no chromosome differences, some matings were fertile. These fertile matings had other abnormalities yet they could produce offspring that may mimic intermediate stages in the evolution of current yeast species. We essentially reversed the speciation process.

“Thus we found a novel role for chromosome rearrangements in the evolution of species.

“An important concern for genetically modified crops is the potential for the spread of the modified genes by outbreeding with related plants. Engineered rearrangements as studied here would prevent such outbreeding. In medicine a number of disorders are associated with chromosome rearrangements and these could be engineered in model organisms so that they can be studied.”

NOTE TO NEWSDESK:  For more information, please contact Professor Edward J. Louis Department of Genetics, phone +44 (0)116 252 3426, FAX +44 (0)116 223 1387, LAB +44 (0)116 223 1329, email ejl12@le.ac.uk OR elouis@molbiol.ox.ac.uk.

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Information supplied by: Barbara Whiteman
Last updated: March 2003
This document has been approved by the head of department or section.