UC San Francisco researchers have discovered that even brainless single-celled yeast have “sensory biases” that can be hacked by a carefully engineered illusion — a finding that could be used to develop new approaches to fighting diseases such as cancer. In the new study, published online Thursday November 19 in Science Express, Wendell Lim, PhD, the study’s senior author*, and his team discovered that yeast cells falsely perceive a pattern of osmotic levels (by applying potassium chloride) that alternate in eight minute intervals as massive, continuously increasing stress. In response, the microbes over-respond and kill themselves. (In their natural environment, salt stress normally gradually increases.) The results, Lim says, suggest a whole new way of looking at the perceptual abilities of simple cells and this power of illusion could even be used to develop new approaches to fighting cancer and other diseases.
“Our results may also be relevant for cellular signaling in disease, as mutations affecting cellular signaling are common in cancer, autoimmune disease, and diabetes,” the researchers conclude in the paper. “These mutations may rewire the native network, and thus could modify its activation and adaptation dynamics. Such network rewiring in disease may lead to changes that can be most clearly revealed by simulation with oscillatory inputs or other ‘non-natural’ patterns. “The changes in network response behaviors could be exploited for diagnosis and functional profiling of disease cells, or potentially taken advantage of as an Achilles’ heel to selectively target cells bearing the diseased network.”