Investigation of the heat shock response in yeast: quantitative modeling and single-cell microfluidic studies
Heat shock response (HSR) is an ancient and highly conserved signaling pathway in cells that regulates the expression of heat shock proteins (HSPs) in the presence of thermal and other environmental stresses. HSPs function to prevent the formation of non-specific protein aggregates and to assist proteins in acquiring their native structures. Although HSR has been extensively studied, key aspects of this pathway remain a mystery. In particular, how HSR is activated and regulated by the master transcription factor HSF1 is not well understood. The broad goal of this thesis is to develop a quantitative framework aimed at elucidating the HSF1-mediated activation of HSR in yeast cells. Understanding this process has important implications for development, physiology and disease. Indeed, HSF1 is conserved from yeast to human, has been shown to play an important role in stress resistance, health and disease, and is a therapeutic target for neurodegenerative diseases. Broadly, there are two putative (not mutually exclusive) models for activation in response to heat shock: (1) HSF1 dissociation from chaperone proteins and (2) hyper-phosphorylation and the subsequent activation of HSF1. However the relative contribution of each of these events in the activation process is not characterized. Thus far, there is no direct evidence linking either of these two events to activation, and the relative contribution of each mechanism to the activation process has not been quantitatively characterized. To address these issues, we develop a quantitative model of HSR in yeast cells. We use the model to make a series of quantitative predictions and, in a collaborative effort, experimentally test these predictions in a yeast model of HSR. Critically, we provide the first direct evidence for chaperone dissociation of HSF1 in response to heat shock. Moreover, we find that HSF1 phosphorylation is dispensable for activation of HSR, but is able to modulate its activity. Taken together, our work leads to a model for two “orthogonal” mechanisms regulating HSR in yeast, in which chaperone dissociation acts as an ON/OFF switch, whereas phosphorylation functions to tune the gain of the response. Finally, to complement and further test this quantitative model, we develop a novel microfluidic system to explore in more depth the behavior of individual cells in the presence of heat shock inputs. This includes (1) a microfluidic device with microscale on-chip heaters enabling programmable thermal perturbations and (2) a custom image analysis platform to follow single cells through heat shock time courses. In preliminary single-cell studies, we find a relationship between HSF1 phosphorylation state and cell-to-cell variability in HSR activation level (as measured by a transcriptional reporter). These preliminary results suggest that HSF1 phosphorylation may be generating and tuning noise in the HSR in order to promote phenotypic plasticity and increased survivability of a cell population in the face of stress.