Functional genomics and metal metabolism
© BioMed Central Ltd 2001
Published: 14 September 2001
Metal ions are essential nutrients, yet they can also be toxic if they over-accumulate. Homeostatic mechanisms and detoxification systems therefore precisely control their intracellular levels and distribution. The tools of functional genomics are rapidly accelerating understanding in this field, particularly in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Metals such as iron, copper, and zinc are essential nutrients for all organisms and play important roles in many biochemical processes. For example, iron and copper readily donate and accept electrons and are important cofactors in electron transport and in many redox-active metalloenzymes. Zinc, a strong Lewis acid (an electron-pair acceptor), is a catalytic component of over 300 enzymes and plays critical structural roles in many proteins, for example in zinc fingers. On the other hand, these same metal ions, as well as non-nutrient metals such as cadmium and mercury, can be extremely toxic to cells if they overaccumulate. Organisms have therefore evolved precise homeostatic regulatory systems to control the uptake, distribution, storage, and detoxification of metal ions. While researchers using the traditional approaches of genetics and biochemistry have made tremendous strides in understanding these systems, the application of functional genomics is greatly accelerating the pace of this research. Some of the best examples of the impact of functional genomics come from studies of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae; this organism will thus be the focus of this article.
Functional genomics has its foundation in the large-scale projects for collecting expressed sequence tags (ESTs) and for genome sequencing, begun in the 1980s. Expression profiling is the direct offspring of these sequencing projects. With genome or EST sequences in hand, microarrays or macroarrays can be constructed to analyze gene-expression profiles at the genome-wide level over a range of conditions. These techniques have been especially useful in identifying genes that are directly regulated in response to changes in metal-ion status.
Similar studies have also identified the target genes of the Aft1p and Mac1p transcription factors in yeast [3,4,5]. Aft1p regulates genes involved in iron metabolism, and Mac1p regulates genes involved in copper homeostasis. Like Zap1p, these factors activate the expression of target genes in metal-limiting conditions, to facilitate uptake and distribution of the metal ion. Although many Aft1p-regulated genes were already known, microarray analysis identified four additional target genes, ARN1-ARN4, which encode homologous members of the major facilitator superfamily of transporters . Further studies have shown that these proteins transport iron bound to different siderophore compounds (siderophores are iron-binding agents produced and secreted by other microbes in order to obtain iron) [6,7].
In a complementary study, Foury and Talibi  identified genes upregulated in a yfh1 mutant strain of yeast. YFH1 encodes the yeast homolog of the human gene involved in Friedreich ataxia, a neurodegenerative disease. Deletion of the YFH1 gene causes accumulation of iron in mitochondria, which depletes cytosolic iron, thereby activating Aft1p. This study identified 70 genes that were upregulated in yfh1 mutants and that are thus likely to be Aft1p targets. Notable among these are the ARN genes, several novel cell-wall proteins that are perhaps involved in iron acquisition, a heme oxygenase possibly involved in the recycling of heme iron, and TIS11, a homolog of mammalian tristetraproline protein implicated in controlling the stability of mRNAs involved in iron homeostasis .
Robertson et al.  have extended our understanding of iron homeostasis by examining the roles of protein kinase A catalytic subunits. The yeast genome encodes three such subunits, Tpk1p, Tpk2p, and Tpk3p. These kinases phosphorylate target proteins when cAMP levels are high, for example during growth on fermentable carbon sources. Using DNA microarrays and expression profiling of wild-type and tpk mutant strains, they found that Tpk2p activity represses many of the Aft1p target genes. A simple hypothesis that explains this result is that Tpk2p negatively regulates Aft1p activity by direct phosphorylation. This circuitry would increase iron uptake during the switch to respiratory growth, when additional iron would be required for heme synthesis.
The Mac1p transcription factor activates genes in response to copper limitation, and its target genes, as determined by expression profiling, include four genes directly involved in copper uptake . Perhaps one of the most intriguing applications of expression profiling was reported by Moler et al. . Using the data from several previously published microarray experiments not directly dealing with metals, these investigators identified potential Aft1p- and Mac1p-regulated genes from the clustering of their expression profiles with previously known targets (using a naive Bayes model to cluster the genes). The prior studies upon which this analysis was based addressed cell-cycle control, responses to heat shock and cold shock, and the shift from fermentable to non-fermentable carbon sources. Evidently, expression levels of Aft1p and Mac1p targets happen to change in concert under these different growth conditions, allowing clustering of their expression profiles. Thus, an unexpected attribute of expression profiling is its ability to identify genes involved in processes that are not even the direct focus of the experiment. Careful re-analysis of all microarray data will surely reveal abundant information about regulatory relationships.
Significant studies of metals using functional genomics have also been performed using other organisms. Among prokaryotes, expression profiling studies addressing metal biology have used Bacillus subtilis  and Escherichia coli . For mammals, expression profiling was used by Schaffner and colleagues to identify potential targets of the zinc-responsive transcription factor MTF-1 . Moreover, recent studies have used microarrays for 'toxicogenomics' - the use of functional genomics to understand the mechanisms underlying the toxicity of environmental agents . For example, studies have addressed changes in transcription resulting from nickel exposure to lung tissue  and from lead exposure in astrocytes . The latter study showed that expression of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is induced in lead-treated astrocytes via a pathway that includes protein kinase C and the transcription factor AP-1, providing the first evidence that lead increases expression of a growth factor that may contribute to its neurotoxicity.
In summary, during its short history, functional genomics has made major contributions in the field of metals in biology. These advances have primarily addressed the critical mechanisms of metal-ion homeostasis and detoxification. With continued use of these techniques, and the application of new approaches (such as protein microarrays) , functional genomics will continue to accelerate research in this area.
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