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

Glyoxal fixation facilitates transcriptome analysis after antigen staining and cell sorting by flow cytometry.
Channathodiyil P, Houseley J

A simple method for extraction of high quality RNA from cells that have been fixed, stained and sorted by flow cytometry would allow routine transcriptome analysis of highly purified cell populations and single cells. However, formaldehyde fixation impairs RNA extraction and inhibits RNA amplification. Here we show that good quality RNA can be readily extracted from stained and sorted mammalian cells if formaldehyde is replaced by glyoxal-a well-characterised fixative that is widely compatible with immunofluorescent staining methods. Although both formaldehyde and glyoxal efficiently form protein-protein crosslinks, glyoxal does not crosslink RNA to proteins nor form stable RNA adducts, ensuring that RNA remains accessible and amenable to enzymatic manipulation after glyoxal fixation. We find that RNA integrity is maintained through glyoxal fixation, permeabilisation with methanol or saponin, indirect immunofluorescent staining and flow sorting. RNA can then be extracted by standard methods and processed into RNA-seq libraries using commercial kits; mRNA abundances measured by poly(A)+ RNA-seq correlate well between freshly harvested cells and fixed, stained and sorted cells. We validate the applicability of this approach to flow cytometry by staining MCF-7 cells for the intracellular G2/M-specific antigen cyclin B1 (CCNB1), and show strong enrichment for G2/M-phase cells based on transcriptomic data. Switching to glyoxal fixation with RNA-compatible staining methods requires only minor adjustments of most existing staining and sorting protocols, and should facilitate routine transcriptomic analysis of sorted cells.

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PloS one, 16, 1, 2021

PMID: 33481798

Replicative aging is associated with loss of genetic heterogeneity from extrachromosomal circular DNA in Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Prada-Luengo I, Møller HD, Henriksen RA, Gao Q, Larsen CE, Alizadeh S, Maretty L, Houseley J, Regenberg B

Circular DNA can arise from all parts of eukaryotic chromosomes. In yeast, circular ribosomal DNA (rDNA) accumulates dramatically as cells age, however little is known about the accumulation of other chromosome-derived circles or the contribution of such circles to genetic variation in aged cells. We profiled circular DNA in Saccharomyces cerevisiae populations sampled when young and after extensive aging. Young cells possessed highly diverse circular DNA populations but 94% of the circular DNA were lost after ∼15 divisions, whereas rDNA circles underwent massive accumulation to >95% of circular DNA. Circles present in both young and old cells were characterized by replication origins including circles from unique regions of the genome and repetitive regions: rDNA and telomeric Y' regions. We further observed that circles can have flexible inheritance patterns: [HXT6/7circle] normally segregates to mother cells but in low glucose is present in up to 50% of cells, the majority of which must have inherited this circle from their mother. Interestingly, [HXT6/7circle] cells are eventually replaced by cells carrying stable chromosomal HXT6 HXT6/7 HXT7 amplifications, suggesting circular DNAs are intermediates in chromosomal amplifications. In conclusion, the heterogeneity of circular DNA offers flexibility in adaptation, but this heterogeneity is remarkably diminished with age.

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Nucleic acids research, 1, 1, 01 Jul 2020

PMID: 32609810

The adaptive potential of circular DNA accumulation in ageing cells.
Hull RM, Houseley J

Carefully maintained and precisely inherited chromosomal DNA provides long-term genetic stability, but eukaryotic cells facing environmental challenges can benefit from the accumulation of less stable DNA species. Circular DNA molecules lacking centromeres segregate randomly or asymmetrically during cell division, following non-Mendelian inheritance patterns that result in high copy number instability and massive heterogeneity across populations. Such circular DNA species, variously known as extrachromosomal circular DNA (eccDNA), microDNA, double minutes or extrachromosomal DNA (ecDNA), are becoming recognised as a major source of the genetic variation exploited by cancer cells and pathogenic eukaryotes to acquire drug resistance. In budding yeast, circular DNA molecules derived from the ribosomal DNA (ERCs) have been long known to accumulate with age, but it is now clear that aged yeast also accumulate other high-copy protein-coding circular DNAs acquired through both random and environmentally-stimulated recombination processes. Here, we argue that accumulation of circular DNA provides a reservoir of heterogeneous genetic material that can allow rapid adaptation of aged cells to environmental insults, but avoids the negative fitness impacts on normal growth of unsolicited gene amplification in the young population.

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Current genetics, 1, 1, 15 Apr 2020

PMID: 32296868