Dream a scenario where our understanding of one of the most fundamental aspects of cellular life – nutrient sensing and growth regulation – is turned on its head. This is precisely what’s happening with the recent revelations about the Target of Rapamycin (TOR) complex, a crucial protein complex in cells. This complex, long thought to be unflinching in its role, has shown a surprising side under glucose starvation conditions. The implications? A seismic shift in our understanding of cellular adaptation, with potential far-reaching impacts on fields from agriculture to medicine. This exciting new study reveals how TOR inactivation is not just a simple on-off switch but initiates a cascade of changes, leading to the formation of heterochromatin in rDNA. Stay tuned as we delve into a world where cellular responses are not just reactions, but intricate dances of adaptation and survival.

In a pivotal discovery, co-lead researchers Dr. Hayato Hirai and Professor Kunihiro Ohta, alongside team members Ms. Yuki Sen and Ms. Miki Tamura from the University of Tokyo, have unveiled the intricate mechanisms of gene regulation in fission yeast during nutrient scarcity. Published in Cell Reports, their study delves into the complex interplay of cellular responses in Schizosaccharomyces pombe, a type of fission yeast, under conditions of nutrient deficiency. This research has illuminated new aspects of gene regulation, particularly focusing on how cells modify the expression of ribosomal genes in response to environmental stress. The team’s findings indicate a unique process of histone modification and heterochromatin formation, distinguishing it from known mechanisms in other yeast species such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

Dr. Hayato Hirai elucidates the essence of their discovery: “Nutrient depletion inactivates the TOR pathway, leading to a downturn in the expression of ribosomal genes”​​. This mechanism involves the deactivation of TORC1 in the rDNA region, which plays a pivotal role in controlling gene expression related to ribosome production. The process is facilitated by the dissociation of Atf1, a stress-responsive transcription factor, and the accumulation of FACT, a histone chaperone, contributing to the maintenance of H3K9 methylation and subsequent heterochromatin formation.

Professor Kunihiro Ohta highlights the significance of their approach, underscoring the intricate connections in cellular regulation, “The TOR pathway could potentially be an upstream regulator of Atf1, FACT, and the RNAi pathway in S. pombe”​​. This insight suggests a complex network of regulatory pathways at play in response to environmental cues.

The team employed various innovative techniques, such as ChIP-qPCR, targeting H3K9 methylation, a marker for heterochromatin formation. Dr. Hirai emphasizes, “Our ChIP-qPCR results showed an increase in H3K9me2 levels in cells with inactivated TORC1, indicating the direct impact of TORC1 inactivation on heterochromatin formation”​​.

Their findings open new avenues for understanding how cells conserve energy and regulate growth under nutrient-limited conditions. “This regulation of ribosomal gene expression is crucial for cellular viability during nutrient scarcity,” adds Professor Ohta​​.

Beyond yeast, this study holds potential implications for understanding similar pathways in higher organisms, including humans. Dr. Hirai suggests, “The mechanisms we discovered in fission yeast may have parallels in more complex eukaryotes, offering new insights into human cellular responses to environmental stresses”​​.

In summary, the research by Dr. Hirai, Professor Ohta, and their team marks a significant step forward in our comprehension of cellular responses to nutrient deprivation. It not only adds a new dimension to our knowledge of gene regulation in fission yeast but also paves the way for exploring similar pathways in more complex organisms.


Hayato Hirai, Yuki Sen, Miki Tamura, Kunihiro Ohta. “TOR inactivation triggers heterochromatin formation in rDNA during glucose starvation.” Cell Reports, 2023. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2023.113320.