Do Yeasts Have Plasmids?

Key Takeaways:

  • Yeasts contain small circular DNA molecules called plasmids that are similar to bacterial plasmids.
  • There are four main types of yeast plasmids – YIp, YRp, YEp, and YCp – each with different replication properties.
  • Yeast plasmids are used as cloning vectors to shuttle DNA between bacteria and yeast.
  • Yeast plasmids can replicate in both bacterial and yeast cells, acting as shuttle vectors.
  • Plasmids allow foreign genes to be introduced and expressed in yeast for research or industrial purposes.


Yeasts are eukaryotic microorganisms that have been used for centuries for baking, brewing, and fermentation processes. Scientifically known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, baker’s yeast has also become an important model organism in molecular and cell biology research. An interesting feature of yeast biology is that like bacteria, yeast cells contain small circular DNA molecules called plasmids alongside their main chromosomal DNA. But do yeasts really have plasmids, and if so, how are they similar or different from bacterial plasmids? This article will provide a comprehensive overview of plasmids in yeast, including the types, properties, uses, and key discoveries. With insights from landmark studies, it will analyze the core characteristics and functions of yeast plasmids. For researchers, biotechnologists, or anyone interested in microbiology and synthetic biology, this guide on yeast plasmids will build a firm understanding of this genetic element and its applications.

Plasmids are extrachromosomal DNA molecules separate from the cellular chromosome. Ranging from 1 to over 200 kb in size, plasmids can replicate independently within a cell. They were first discovered in bacteria in the 1950s but were subsequently found in yeast as well. As circular, double-stranded DNA forms that can readily replicate and express genes, plasmids have become extremely useful as vectors in genetic engineering and molecular cloning. In biotechnology, plasmids are workhorse tools for introducing foreign genes into bacterial or yeast hosts. This article will uncover the biology of plasmids specifically in yeast hosts and how they enable DNA manipulation in this key microbe.

What Are The Main Types of Yeast Plasmids?

Yeast plasmids can be grouped into four main categories based on their mode of replication and maintenance in host cells:

Yeast Integrating Plasmids (YIp)

  • Do not replicate autonomously
  • Integrate into host chromosome
  • Allow stable gene insertion

Yeast Replicating Plasmids (YRp)

  • Replicate autonomously
  • Unstable without selection
  • High-copy number

Yeast Episomal Plasmids (YEp)

  • Replicate autonomously
  • Maintained at low-copy numbers
  • Stable without selection

Yeast Centromere Plasmids (YCp)

  • Contain a yeast centromere sequence
  • Stable due to mitotic segregation
  • Maintained at low-copy number

The different types of yeast plasmids offer variety in how foreign genes can be introduced and propagated. Researchers can choose vectors suited for gene integration, autonomous replication, or centromeric stability depending on the intended experimental purpose.

How Are Yeast Plasmids Similar to Bacterial Plasmids?

Yeast plasmids share a number of similarities with their bacterial counterparts:

  • Both are extrachromosomal circular DNA molecules capable of autonomous replication.
  • Yeast plasmids have a similar architecture to bacterial plasmids, encoding:
    • An origin of replication
    • Selection marker(s) such as an antibiotic resistance gene
    • Cloning site for foreign DNA insertion
  • Most yeast plasmid vectors can propagate in both bacterial and yeast hosts.
  • High-copy number yeast plasmids resemble bacterial plasmids.

However, key differences exist as well. While bacterial plasmids are almost always circular, linear plasmids have also been discovered in yeasts. Also, yeast replicons and centromeres function differently from bacterial versions. But fundamentally, the extrachromosomal nature and gene expression capabilities are shared between bacterial and yeast plasmids.

How Are Yeast Plasmids Classified and Characterized?

Early studies in the 1980s paved the way in classifying and characterizing key properties of native yeast plasmids. Researchers discovered that plasmids from different yeast strains could be grouped based on their mechanisms of replication and maintenance.

The development of yeast vectors enabled molecular dissection of the key DNA sequences and proteins involved. For example, autonomous replication sequence (ARS) elements were found to enable plasmids to replicate episomally. Meanwhile, yeast centromeres and their binding proteins were shown to allow stable, low-copy segregation of plasmids.

By the mid-1990s, a robust understanding of yeast plasmid properties had emerged. Both native plasmids and engineered plasmid vectors served as tools to uncover the fundamental biology underpinning yeast genetics and cell biology.

What Are Some Key Examples and Studies of Yeast Plasmids?

Native 2-micron Plasmids

  • Discovered in Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains
  • Encode just four proteins involved in replication and partitioning
  • Maintained at ~40-60 copies per cell
  • Model for high-copy plasmids

Yeast-E. coli Shuttle Vectors

  • pBR322 and pUC vectors modified with ARS and selection markers
  • Allow cloning in E. coli and expression in yeast
  • Facilitated study of foreign gene function in yeast

Yeast Artificial Chromosomes (YACs)

  • Yeast vectors that can stably carry large 100-1000+ kb DNA fragments
  • Enabled complete genes/pathways to be studied in yeast
  • Drove yeast as key model organism in the 1990s

These examples illustrate the immense utility of yeast plasmids for advancing genetics research and biotechnology applications. Both native and engineered plasmids crucially enabled yeast molecular biology.

How Are Yeast Plasmids Used as Cloning Vectors?

Like bacterial plasmids, yeast plasmids are extensively used as cloning vectors to introduce foreign DNA into cells. Key advantages as cloning vectors include:

  • High transformation efficiency into yeast
  • Available in a range of sizes (from ~2 kb to >100 kb)
  • Variety of selection markers (auxotrophic, antibiotic resistance)
  • Compatibility with E. coli vectors for DNA manipulation

After cloning in E. coli, yeast plasmids can transfer DNA into yeast for:

  • Gene expression studies
  • Protein production
  • Metabolic engineering
  • Yeast library construction
  • Synthetic biology circuits

Centromeric and integrating plasmids allow stable expression while high-copy plasmids enable high protein yields. This versatility makes yeast plasmids indispensable tools in biotechnology.

What Are Some Limitations of Yeast Plasmids?

However, yeast plasmids have some limitations to consider as well:

  • Transformation efficiency lower than E. coli plasmids
  • Restricted set of E. coli plasmid replication origins function in yeast
  • Smaller maximum size than bacterial plasmids
  • Potential metabolic burden due to high-copy replication
  • Native recombination can lead to plasmid instability

Thus certain constraints exist in plasmid design and application in yeast systems. But ongoing engineering of yeast plasmid vectors continues to enhance utility and push boundaries further.

How Are Yeast Plasmids Employed in Metabolic Engineering?

A major application of yeast plasmids is metabolic engineering – harnessing yeast to produce valuable compounds sustainably. Early on, plasmids enabled high-level production of insulin and hepatitis vaccines in yeast. Today, they facilitate engineering yeast to generate biofuels, pharmaceutical precursors, food additives, and more.

Key roles of plasmids in metabolic engineering include:

  • Expressing enzymes of biosynthetic pathways
  • Optimizing metabolic fluxes
  • Boosting precursor supply
  • Increasing cofactor availability
  • Strain optimization through directed evolution

Via plasmids, yeast factories can be customized to make not just natural products, but also novel molecules. Yeast plasmids underpin rapid prototyping and innovation in synthetic biology as well.


In summary, yeast plasmids have played instrumental roles enabling molecular genetics research and biotechnology advancement. As extrachromosomal DNA elements, they drive key applications in cloning, protein production, metabolic engineering, and synthetic biology. Diverse native plasmids provided models to reveal the basis of plasmid replication and stability in yeast. Vectors engineered from these prototypes offered an indispensible toolkit to explore yeast cell biology. Today, yeast plasmids continue to serve as enabling platforms, allowing sophisticated programming of yeast organisms as cell factories. From fundamental beginnings, yeast plasmids have been transformed into pivotal resources propelling biotechnology into the future.


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