Can a PhD Student Use Yeast to Help Us Understand Cancer?

For a lot of people, presentations are a never-wracking, sweat inducing experience. Yet at the same time, there are those who thrive under the pressure and see them as a chance to perform: Vakil Takhaveev – a PhD student in molecular biology at the University of Groningen (RUG) – belongs to the latter.

As part of this year’s 3 Minute Thesis competition, he managed to impress the judges and was crowned the winner. The first competition of its kind at the university, it pits competiting academics against one another, where they must explain their thesis to an audience within the time limit of three minutes. Having seen a video of his peformance, and being enamoured by his ability to present ideas in an enchanting way, I wanted to find out more.

The cycles of metabolism in yeast cells

During his presentation, Vakil talks about yeast, and how it reacts under UV light. Fluoresence – the emission of light from a substance which has previousy absorbed it – is observed, though it oscillates and comes in cycles. This means that it goes from very bright, to very dim and back again. He calls this the cycles of metabolism, and it’s his mission to find out what happens in the cell to cause these oscilliations. Why? Scientific curiosity.

“There are many different kinds of PhDs on the market. Some are very well defined. These are very safe to do, but there is less freedom in deciding what to study, and less chance to develop skills in making research plans,” he explains as he describes how he ended up in this field, “For my topic, I had a lot of freedom as the position only offered ideas. That means there’s a greater chance to bump into something interesting, but also a higher chance of failure”.

Metabolic cycles could tell us more about diseases like cancer

Although it isn’t what drives him, Vakil’s work could also provide some benefit for society. As the metabolic cycles are related to cell division, by understanding why they occur, we could learn more about diseases such as cancer and what causes them to develop.

So why does looking at yeast help us to come to conclusions about our own species?  “In principle, the stuff happening in our own cells is also happening in yeast” Vakil says. Both our mammalian cells and yeast are eukaryotes – a specific type of cell – and therefore the chemistry going on inside is quite similar. “All phenomena which have been found in yeast cells have also been found in human cells, except some fungi specific stuff that yeast has,” he explains, “Though the things happening in our cells are admittedly more complicated“.

Another reason for studying yeast, is that it divides every two hours, whereas for our cells that number is 24; therefore, in theory, his PhD would take 12 times longer to finish.

Exploring an untapped biological vein of knowledge

Despite working so closely with yeast, he hopes to be able to study a more diverse set of organisms in the future. “Right now we have a few model organisms to work with in the lab – mainly yeast and E. coli,” he says, “But I have my suspicions that the molecular biology is completely different in the millions of species which remain unstudied.”

Removing his slavic accent

For now, he remains hard at work on his PhD and is waiting patiently to find out if he has moved on to the next stage of the 3 Minte Thesis competition – as the winner, he has the chance to compete in the final if he is shortlisted. However, he also tells me that he is interested in moving to an English speaking country in order to rid himself of his slavic accent for fear of coming across as a Hollywood movie villian.

“Unfortunately, it would be too optimistic to expect to figure out everything in this project” Vakil tells me. Even so, through his work, he could bring us one step closer to understanding cancer, which could in tern allow us to fight the disease more easily. Regardless, winning the competition is a step in the right direction for his career in science. With all said and done, my words are just that: words. If you would like to see the man himself in action, check out the video here. In my humble opinion you should, not only because he’s very passionate about his work, but because honestly, he’s just a really nice guy.

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.