Organisms must either synthesize or assimilate essential organic compounds to survive. The homocysteine synthase Met15 has been considered essential for inorganic sulfur assimilation in yeast since its discovery in the 1970s. As a result, MET15 has served as a genetic marker for hundreds of experiments that play a foundational role in eukaryote genetics and systems biology. Nevertheless, we demonstrate here through structural and evolutionary modeling, in vitro kinetic assays, and genetic complementation, that an alternative homocysteine synthase encoded by the previously uncharacterized gene YLL058W enables cells lacking Met15 to assimilate enough inorganic sulfur for survival and proliferation. These cells however fail to grow in patches or liquid cultures unless provided with exogenous methionine or other organosulfurs. We show that this growth failure, which has historically justified the status of MET15 as a classic auxotrophic marker, is largely explained by toxic accumulation of the gas hydrogen sulfide because of a metabolic bottleneck. When patched or cultured with a hydrogen sulfide chelator, and when propagated as colony grids, cells without Met15 assimilate inorganic sulfur and grow, and cells with Met15 achieve even higher yields. Thus, Met15 is not essential for inorganic sulfur assimilation in yeast. Instead, MET15 is the first example of a yeast gene whose loss conditionally prevents growth in a manner that depends on local gas exchange. Our results have broad implications for investigations of sulfur metabolism, including studies of stress response, methionine restriction, and aging. More generally, our findings illustrate how unappreciated experimental variables can obfuscate biological discovery.
Keywords: Saccharomyces cerevisiae; automated colony transfer; enzyme; genetic engineering; pinning; protein evolution; yeast genetics; yeast metabolism; yeast physiology.
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