Berkeley Lab study uses baker’s yeast to identify toxicity of metals

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Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab/Courtesy
Researchers at Berkeley Lab published a study May 4 in which they used yeast to track the toxicity of lanthanides to the human body. the lab is now moving to expand its research by investigating specific lanthanides at a greater extent.

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A team of researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, published a study May 4 using baker’s yeast to evaluate the toxicity of lanthanides, a group of metals previously thought to be less toxic.

Lanthanides are a series of elements commonly used in areas such as renewable energy and clinical imaging. About 25% of MRIs rely on the lanthanide gadolinium as a contrast agent to increase the visibility of medical imaging, according to the study’s lead author Roger Molto Pallares.

“It was very cool because we worked with biologists, geneticists, chemists,” Pallares said. “It took a lot of work and took a lot of people, (that) is the main message. It’s not one man’s job. Tt was a lot of people that came together to get this done.”

Although these elements were long assumed to be minimally toxic to humans, research from the last few decades has discovered the potentially toxic effects of lanthanides on the human body. Studies found that patients unable to remove lanthanide agents from their bodies were susceptible to toxic effects when injected with gadolinium, Pallares said.

Baker’s yeast was used to map the toxicity profile of different lanthanides because it contains cellular pathways and functions that are similar to humans, Pallares added. He said while yeast shares several biological structures with humans, it has a much shorter genome, serving as a “simplified model for human cells.”

According to Pallares, by tracking the toxic effects of specific lanthanides on yeast, researchers discovered a group of proteins and genes that can become deregulated when encountering a lanthanide. Additionally, the study, which also included researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Florida, identified the mechanisms the yeast used to combat the toxicity.

“By using yeast, we can see how the metal is toxic, and how the yeast tries to minimize that,” Pallares said.

Pallares added that lanthanides are unique because their sizes vary slightly, but there is no substantial difference in chemical properties across the elements. Despite their similar chemical structure, the study discovered that different lanthanides interacted with yeast in very different ways.

This variance was an “astonishing” discovery in light of the elements’ shared chemical structure, Pallares added.

The lab’s study profiling the toxicity of lanthanides can have broad applications for public health, according to Pallares. Due to yeast’s similarities to humans, researchers can extend their findings to understand the effects lanthanides can have on the human body.

“By understanding how lanthanides promote toxicity and how we fight that toxicity, we can develop new therapeutic properties to design better drugs,” Pallares said.

He added that the lab is now moving to expand its research by investigating specific lanthanides more extensively, as well as pivoting to studies using animals.

Contact Rachel Raps at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rachelraps_dc.