Although bacteria have been an invaluable model for studies of many con- served properties of cells, they obviously cannot be used to study aspects of cell structure and function that are unique to eukaryotes. Yeasts, the simplest eukaryotes, have a number of experimental advantages similar to those of E. coli. Consequently, yeasts have provided a crucial model for studies of many fundamental aspects of eukaryotic cell biology.
The genome of the most frequently studied yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, consists of 12 million base pairs of DNA and contains about 6000 genes. Although the yeast genome is approximately three times larger than that of E. coli, it is far more manageable than the genomes of more complex eukaryotes, such as humans. Yet, even in its simplicity, the yeast cell exhibits the typical features of eukaryotic cells (Figure 1.16): It contains a distinct nucleus surrounded by a nuclear membrane, its genomic DNA is organized as 16 linear chromosomes, and its cytoplasm contains subcellular organelles.
Figure 1.16 Transmission electron micrograph of Saccharomyces cerevisiae Yeasts are the simplest model for studying eukaryotic cells.
Yeasts can be readily grown in the laboratory and can be studied by many of the same molecular genetic approaches that have proved so successful with E. coli. Although yeasts do not replicate as rapidly as bacteria, they still divide as frequently as every 2 hours and they can easily be grown as colonies from a single cell. Consequently, yeasts can be used for a variety of genetic manipulations similar to those that can be performed using bacteria.
These features have made yeast cells the most approachable eukaryotic cells from the standpoint of molecular biology. Yeast mutants have been important in understanding many fundamental processes in eukaryotes, including DNA replication, transcription, RNA processing, protein sorting, and the regulation of cell division, as will be discussed in subsequent chapters. The unity of molecular cell biology is made abundantly clear by the fact that the general principles of cell structure and function revealed by studies of yeasts apply to all eukaryotic cells.