Actually Kurt Vonnegut came up with the basic idea behind prions in his 1963 Novel “Cat’s Cradle”. Instead of proteins, it involved a form of water (Ice-9) which had never been seen before, but one which was solid at room temperature. Unfortunately, it also solidified all liquid water it came in contact with effectively ending life on earth.
Now for some history.
The first Xray crystallographic structures of proteins were incredibly seductive intellectually, much as false color functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) images are today. It was hard not to think of them as the structure of the protein.
Nowaday we know that lots of proteins have at least one intrinsically disordered (trans. unstructured) segment of 30 amino acids ore more. [ Nature vol. 411 pp. 151 – 153 ’11 ] says 40%, and also that 25% of all human proteins are likely to be disordered (translation; unstructured) from end to end — basic on a bioinformatics program.
I’ve always been amazed that any protein has only a few shapes, purely on the basis of the chemistry — read this if you have the time — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/why-should-a-protein-have-just-one-shape-or-any-shape-for-that-matter/. Clearly the proteins making us up do have a relatively limited number of shapes (or we’d all be dead).
The possible universe of proteins from which our proteins are selected is enormously large. In fact the whole earth doesn’t have enough mass (even if it were made entirely of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur) to make just one copy of the 20^100 possible proteins of length 100. For the calculation please see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2009/12/20/how-many-proteins-can-be-made-using-the-entire-earth-mass-to-do-so/ — if you have the time.
So, even though it is meaningful question philosophically, just how common proteins with a few shapes are in this universe, we’ll never be able to carry out the experiment. Popper would say it’s a scientifically meaningless question, because it can’t be experimentally decided. Bertrand Russell would not.
Again, if you have time, take a look at https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/a-chemical-gedanken-experiment/
Which, at long last, brings us to prions.
They were first discovered in yeast, and were extremely hard to figure out as they represented something in the cytoplasm which contained no DNA and yet which was heritable. The first prion was discovered nearly 50 years ago. It was called [PSI+] and it produced a lot of new proteins in yeast containing it (which is how its effects were measured) Mating [ PSI+ ] with [ psi-] (e.g. yeast cells without [ PSI+ ] converted the [ psi-] to [ PSI+ ]. It couldn’t be mapped to any known genetic element. Also [ PSI+ ] was lost at a higher rate than would be expected for a DNA mutation. The first clue that [ PSI+ ] was a protein was that it was lost faster when yeast were grown in the presence of protein denaturants (such as guanidine).
It turned out that [ PSI + ] was an aggregated form of the Sup35 protein, which basically functioned to suppress the ribosome from reading through the stop codon. If you need background on what was just said please see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/molecular-biology-survival-guide-for-chemists-i-dna-and-protein-coding-gene-structure/ and the subsequent 4 posts. This is why [ PSI+ ] yeast produced longer proteins.Things began to get exciting when Sup35 was dissected so domains could be found which induced [ PSI+ ] formation. Amazingly these domains spontaneously formed visible fibers in vitro resembling amyloid in some respects (binding the dye Congo Red for one). Then they found that preformed fibers, greatly accelerated fiber formation by unpolymerized Sup35 — beginning to sound a bit lice Ice 9 doesn’t it. Yeasts have many other prions, but the best studied and most informative is the one formed from Sup35.
So that’s how prions were found (in yeast) and what they are — an aggregated form of a given protein in a slightly different shape, which can cause another molecule of the same protein to adopt the prion proteins new shape. Amazingly, we have prions within us. But that’s the subject of the next post.