How yeast could save Selena Gomez

Illustration by Cassie Wang

Professor of Chemistry Sarah Keller has a knack for yeast. While we might know about yeast from its role in creating bread and yogurt, Keller’s research on it has been linked to processes that can cause diseases such as lupus — an autoimmune disorder that rose to national attention after actress and singer Selena Gomez was diagnosed.

Keller, from the University of Washington, spoke at the 5C Chemistry Seminar Series Sept. 11, a program that invites prominent chemists to 5C campuses to share their research and career paths with students and faculty.

Here, Keller described her research, which revolves around studying a structure found in yeast cells, the vacuole. This structure is in charge of collecting the cell’s waste, an important function for cell vitality.

However, these structures are generally found in bacterial cells, not in human cells. So, why does Keller care so much about this structure, and what about it relates her work to Selena Gomez’s health?

As a biophysicist, she has spent her time exploring the structure of the vacuole. Keller said she was excited to discover that the vacuole’s membrane, a protective outer layer, can adapt to its surroundings.

Unlike the membrane that surrounds the cells in our bodies, the membranes surrounding vacuoles have much more freedom to move around — an essential piece of information that Keller found.

This concept was coined “phase separation,” and her research has further emphasized that this specific adaptability is essential for yeast cells, which need this phase separation in order to live.

Keller’s discovery of the vacuole’s adaptability led her to wonder if this was a fluid process, essentially whether or not this change was permanent.

She discovered that the vacuole constantly adapts to its surroundings. However, what intrigued her the most was that it only seemed to adapt at a specific temperature, which she noted would help in designing the next round of testing.

Although her lab team does not know exactly why this phenomenon occurs, the team is already working on ways to further test this and how it might relate to specific diseases, like lupus.

This yeast we so often dismiss has led Keller to significant discoveries about the vacuole’s membrane. Its ability to change might have even larger effects for the world of medicine, holding implications for celebrities like Gomez and the greater world of autoimmune diseases.

Caitlyn Fick is a chemistry major at Scripps College. She enjoys mountains, trees, water, and dogs.

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