Sequencing the yeast genome

The systematic mapping and sequencing of the yeast genome began in the late 1980s and was completed in 1996 by an international consortium coordinated by the XII Directorate-General of the European Commission.

Yeast was chosen for the sequencing project because it is an important microorganism in the food industry and more generally in the biotechnology industry. Yeast is also a crucial model organism in biological and biomedical research and thousands of biologists were familiar with it. Sequencing the yeast genome was also moving a step closer to the goal explicitly discussed at the time, the sequencing of the human genome, because yeast was the first eukaryote considered for sequencing.

633 researchers, who worked in over one hundred laboratories in Europe, US, Canada and Japan, took part in the project that was managed by the Belgian microbiologist Andre Goffeau. Mapping and sequencing the yeast genome proceeded chromosome by chromosome and, once completed, each chromosome sequence was deposited in the EMBL database.

Over 70% of the project funding came from Europe. The bigger share (55%) was provided by the European Commission, and another 17% was sponsored by the Wellcome Trust. In the US the sequencing of the yeast genome was supported by the National Institutes of Health, in Canada by McGill University and in Japan by RIKEN, an institution devoted to genomics.

In the yeast genome project there was a strong industrial component. Several biotechnology companies (Genotype GmbH, GATC GmbH, Agon GmbH, Microsynth GmbH etc) and two brewers, the Danish Carlsberg and the Spanish La Cruz del Campo, took part in sequencing. The European Commission promoted also the creation of an industrial consortium, the Yeast Genome Platform, which was formed by companies that used yeast in their business and were interested in the sequencing data.

The mapping and sequencing of the yeast genome, therefore, took place at the intersection of science, industry, and politics, if we consider the leading role that a political entity, the European Commission, had in shaping the project as a collaborative enterprise involving a network of laboratories distributed worldwide.