University of Leicester eBulletin

Yeast Aids Investigation into Diversity of Life

November 2002

How do new species arise?

The processes leading to the generation of new species is an age-old problem and has been the subject of heated debate since the time of Darwin.

In this week’s Science (November 29, 2002) two University of Leicester geneticists, working with a former student now in Texas, report on the creation of new species in the laboratory using the model organism Baker’s yeast.

The work of Dr Rhona Borts and Professor Ed Louis follows from the study of many aspects of evolution and speciation over the years.

Yeast has been a powerful model for basic biological processes, including understanding pathogens, as well as many human diseases. It was the first eukaryotic organism (i.e. one that can be compared to human organisms) sequenced, and leads the way in determining the functions of genes.

The utility as an experimental system for studying “big” questions such as: “How diversity of life evolves?” can now be added to the growing list of the advantages of yeast.

Dr Borts and Professor Louis have been involved in identifying previously undetected yeast species as well as in studying what makes them separate species using the Biological species definition. Mules are a good example of this as they are the sterile hybrid offspring of a cross between horses and donkeys and this sterility shows that horses and donkeys are separate species.

The current work, funded by the Wellcome Trust and reported in this week’s Science, shows that new species can arise from rare progeny of sterile yeast hybrids. These new species add to the diversity of yeasts and their creation models what is going on in the natural world.

As the only university genetics department in the UK to have achieved the top rating of 5* in the latest Government Research Assessment Exercise, and with current research income in excess of £12 million, the University of Leicester Department of Genetics is a world leader in its field.

It has recently been selected as a winner of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize - a tremendous accolade for the University which has now achieved this highest distinction twice in less than a decade.

The Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education has been awarded for a period of four years in recognition of innovative, pioneering research in Genetics, its impact on society, and promotion of the public understanding of science.

The Prize recognises and honours ‘outstanding achievements by UK universities and colleges. Uniquely in the field of education these prizes sit within the national honours systems’.

NOTE TO EDITORS: Copies of the embargoed Science paper are available only from the AAAS Office of Public Programs, telephone 00 1 202 326 6440, email Further information is available from Professor Ed Louis, University of Leicester Department of Genetics. Telephone +44 (0)116 252 3426 / +44 (0)116 223 1329, facsimile +44 (0)116 223 1387, email

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