Jon Houseley

Research Summary

We study the mechanisms by which cells learn to thrive in new environments.
 
From yeast caught by the wind and scattered across the landscape or plankton dwelling in increasingly acidified oceans to malignant cells facing modern targeted anticancer drugs, cells often face a stark choice – adapt or die.
 
We study the mechanisms by which cells adapt to new environments. A major focus is the unexpected ability of cells to change specific parts of their genomes in response to particular environments. The ability to stimulate mutation at the right time and place is likely to allow organisms to evolve and adapt much faster than we might expect, and such mechanisms have clear medical importance.
 
Attempting adaptive change is dangerous for any organism, and must be tightly controlled within the life cycle. We are starting to discover connections between adaptation and ageing; we have found that cellular ageing can facilitate adaptation, and conversely we see evidence that the drive to adapt to the environment seems to impact the ageing process.
 
Jon is a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow.
 

Latest Publications

Transcription-induced formation of extrachromosomal DNA during yeast ageing.
Hull RM, King M, Pizza G, Krueger F, Vergara X, Houseley J

Extrachromosomal circular DNA (eccDNA) facilitates adaptive evolution by allowing rapid and extensive gene copy number variation and is implicated in the pathology of cancer and ageing. Here, we demonstrate that yeast aged under environmental copper accumulate high levels of eccDNA containing the copper-resistance gene CUP1. Transcription of the tandemly repeated CUP1 gene causes CUP1 eccDNA accumulation, which occurs in the absence of phenotypic selection. We have developed a sensitive and quantitative eccDNA sequencing pipeline that reveals CUP1 eccDNA accumulation on copper exposure to be exquisitely site specific, with no other detectable changes across the eccDNA complement. eccDNA forms de novo from the CUP1 locus through processing of DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) by Sae2, Mre11 and Mus81, and genome-wide analyses show that other protein coding eccDNA species in aged yeast share a similar biogenesis pathway. Although abundant, we find that CUP1 eccDNA does not replicate efficiently, and high-copy numbers in aged cells arise through frequent formation events combined with asymmetric DNA segregation. The transcriptional stimulation of CUP1 eccDNA formation shows that age-linked genetic change varies with transcription pattern, resulting in gene copy number profiles tailored by environment.

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PLoS biology, 17, 12, Dec 2019

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000471

PMID: 31794573

Protocols for Northern Analysis of Exosome Substrates and Other Noncoding RNAs.
Cruz C, Houseley J

Over the past decade a plethora of noncoding RNAs (ncRNAs) have been identified, initiating an explosion in RNA research. Although RNA sequencing methods provide unsurpassed insights into ncRNA distribution and expression, detailed information on structure and processing are harder to extract from sequence data. In contrast, northern blotting methods provide uniquely detailed insights into complex RNA populations but are rarely employed outside specialist RNA research groups. Such techniques are generally considered difficult for nonspecialists, which is unfortunate as substantial technical advances in the past few decades have solved the major challenges. Here we present simple, reproducible and highly robust protocols for separating glyoxylated RNA on agarose gels and heat denatured RNA on polyacrylamide-urea gels using standard laboratory electrophoresis equipment. We also provide reliable transfer and hybridization protocols that do not require optimization for most applications. Together, these should allow any molecular biology lab to elucidate the structure and processing of ncRNAs of interest.

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Methods in molecular biology (Clifton, N.J.), 2062, 1, 2020

DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4939-9822-7_5

PMID: 31768973

Tri-methylation of histone H3 lysine 4 facilitates gene expression in ageing cells.
Cruz C, Della Rosa M, Krueger C, Gao Q, Horkai D, King M, Field L, Houseley J

Transcription of protein coding genes is accompanied by recruitment of COMPASS to promoter-proximal chromatin, which methylates histone H3 lysine 4 (H3K4) to form H3K4me1, H3K4me2 and H3K4me3. Here, we determine the importance of COMPASS in maintaining gene expression across lifespan in budding yeast. We find that COMPASS mutations reduce replicative lifespan and cause expression defects in almost 500 genes. Although H3K4 methylation is reported to act primarily in gene repression, particularly in yeast, repressive functions are progressively lost with age while hundreds of genes become dependent on H3K4me3 for full expression. Basal and inducible expression of these genes is also impaired in young cells lacking COMPASS components Swd1 or Spp1. Gene induction during ageing is associated with increasing promoter H3K4me3, but H3K4me3 also accumulates in non-promoter regions and the ribosomal DNA. Our results provide clear evidence that H3K4me3 is required to maintain normal expression of many genes across organismal lifespan.

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eLife, 7, 2050-084X, 2018

PMID: 30274593