Two independent research groups have established conclusively that prions are proteins, and that they do not depend on genes or other factors for transmission of their traits. According to the scientists, the studies answer a nagging question that had raised doubts among some researchers about the validity of the so-called “protein-only” hypothesis of prion infectivity.
Scientists have grappled for years with one of the central tenets of the protein-only hypothesis, namely, that a single prion protein, when unaltered by genetic mutation, can give rise to different strains of prions with varying infectivity and other properties. The two research groups established that the strains could be accounted for by different misfolded conformations of the same protein. The researchers say this finding could contribute to better understanding of the functioning of disease-causing prions in animals and humans.
Both groups published their findings in the March 18, 2004, issue of the journal Nature. Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Jonathan S. Weissman at the University of California at San Francisco led one group. The other effort was led by Chi-Yen King at Florida State University.
Jim Keeley | HHMI
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