Tag: prions

Evolution without genes – prions can evolve and adapt too

By Ed Yong | December 31, 2009 2:00 pm

If you search for decent definitions of evolution, the chances are that you’ll see genes mentioned somewhere. The American Heritage Dictionary talks about natural selection acting on “genetic variation”, Wikipedia discusses “change in the genetic material of a population… through successive generations”, and TalkOrigins talks about changes that are inherited “via the genetic material”. But, as the Year of Darwin draws to a close, a new study suggests that all of these definitions are too narrow.

Prions.jpgJiali Li from the Scripps Institute in Florida has found that prions – the infectious proteins behind mad cow disease, CJD and kuru – are capable of Darwinian evolution, all without a single strand of DNA or its sister molecule RNA.

Prions are rogue version of a protein called PrP. Like all proteins, they are made up of chains of amino acids that fold into a complex three-dimensional structure. Prions are versions of PrP that have folded incorrectly and this misfolded form, called PrPSc, is social, evangelical and murderous. It converts normal prion proteins into a likeness of its abnormal self, and it rapidly gathers together in large clumps that damage and kill surrounding tissues.

Li has found that variation can creep into populations of initially identical prions. Their amino acid sequence stays the same but their already abnormal structures become increasingly twisted. These “mutant” forms have varying degrees of success in different environments. Some do well in brain tissue; others thrive in other types of cell. In each case, natural selection culls the least successful ones. The survivors pass on their structure to the “next generation”, by altering the folds of normal prion proteins.

This process follows the principles of Darwinian evolution, the same principles that shape the genetic material of viruses, bacteria and other living things. In DNA, mutations manifest as changes in the bases that line the famous double helix. In prions, mutations are essentially different styles of molecular origami. In both cases, they are selectively inherited and they can lead to adaptations such as drug resistance. In prions, it happens in the absence of any genetic material. 

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Medicine & health

Deer transmit prion proteins to one another via their droppings

By Ed Yong | September 9, 2009 1:00 pm

Prions are proteins that have become bent out of shape. Their chain of amino acids folds up in an abnormal ways, and they can transmit this rogue alignment to their normal counterparts. As their numbers increase, they gather in large clumps that can kill neurons and damage brains. They most famously cause BSE in cows, CJD in humans and scrapie in sheep. But other mammals suffer from prion diseases too – the deer equivalent is called chronic wasting disease or CWD and it is shedding light on how prions are transmitted in the wild. 

Gultekin Tamguney from the University of California, San Francisco, has found that even infected deer are contagious even when they are apparently healthy and show no outward symptoms. Their faeces are bursting with prions, and through these infectious dollops, deer effectively seed their environment with sources of contagion.

CWD can be very common in both wild and captive deer, and its quick spread suggests that individuals must be able to pass on infections from one to another, probably via their environment. Scientists have suggested that faeces could act as a vehicle for prions, but so far, no one had ever shown that.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Medicine & health
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