Tag Archives: Prions

The prion battles continue with a historical note at the end

Now that we know proteins don’t have just one shape, and that 30% of them have unstructured parts, it’s hard to remember just how radical that Prusiner’s proposal that a particular conformation (PrPSc) of the normal prion protein (PrPC) caused other prion proteins to adopt it and cause disease was back in the 80s. Actually Kurt Vonnegut got there first with Ice-9 in “Cat’s Cradle ” in 1963. If you’ve never read it, do so, you’ll like it.

There was huge resistance to Prusiner’s idea, but eventually it became accepted except by Laura Manuelidis (about which more later). People kept saying the true infectious agent was a contaminant in the preparations Prusiner used to infect mice and that the prion protein (called PrPC) was irrelevant.

The convincing argument that Prusiner was right (for me at least) was PMCA (Protein Misfolding Cyclic Amplification) in which you start with a seed of PrPSc (the misfolded form of the normal prion protein PrPC), incubate it with a 10,000 fold excess of normal PrPC, which is converted by the evil PrPSC to more of itself. Then you sonicate what you’ve got breaking it into small fragments, and continue the process with another 10,000 fold excess of normal PrPC. Repeat this 20 times. This should certainly dilute out any infectious agent along for the ride (no living tissue is involved at any point). You still get PrPSc at the end. For details see Cell vol. 121 pp. 195 – 206 ’05.

Now comes [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 117 pp. 23815 – 23822 ’20 ] which claims to be able to separate the infectivity of prions from their toxicity. Highly purified mouse prions show no signs of toxicity (neurite fragmentation, dendritic spine density changes) in cell culture, but are still infectious producing disease when injected into another mouse brain.

Even worse treatment of brain homogenates from prion infected mice with sodium laroylsarcosine destroys the toxicity to cultured neurons without reducing infectivity to the next mouse.

So if this paper can be replicated it implies that the prion protein triggers some reaction in the intact brain which then kills the animals.

Manuelidis thought in 2011 that the prion protein is a reaction to infection, and that we haven’t found the culprit. I think the PCMA pretty much destroyed that idea.

So basically we’re almost back to square one with what causes prion disease. Just to keep you thinking. Consider this. We can knock out the prion protein gene in mice. Guess what? The mice are normal. However, injection of the abnormal prion protein (PrPSc) into their brains (which is what researchers do to transmit the disease) doesn’t cause any disease.

Historical notes: I could have gone to Yale Med when Manuelidis was there, but chose Penn instead. According to Science vol. 332 pp. 1024 – 1027 ’11 she was one of 6 women in the class, and married her professor (Manuelidis) aged 48 when she was 24 graduating in 1967. In today’s rather Victorian standards of consent, power differential between teacher and student, that would probably have gotten both of them bounced out.

So I went to Penn Med. graduating in ’66. Prusiner graduated in ’68. He and I were in the same medical fraternity (Nu Sigma Nu). Don’t think animal house, medical fraternities were a place to get some decent food, play a piano shaped object and very occasionally party. It’s very likely that we shared a meal, but I have no recollection.

Graduating along with me was another Nobel Laureate to be — Mike Brown, he of the statins. Obviously a smart guy, but he didn’t seem outrageously smarter than the rest of us.


Amyloid goes way back, and scientific writing about has had various zigs and zags starting with Virchow (1821 – 1902) who named it because he thought it was made out of sugar.  For a long time it was defined by the way it looks under the microscope being birefringent when stained with Congo red (which came out 100 years ago,  long before we knew much about protein structure (Pauling didn’t propose the alpha helix until 1951).

Birefringence itself is interesting.  Light moves at different speeds as it moves through materials — which is why your legs look funny when you stand in shallow water.  This is called the refractive index.   Birefringent materials have two different refractive indexes depending on the orientation (polarization) of the light looking at it.  So when amyloid present in fixed tissue on a slide, you see beautiful colors — for pictures and much more please see — https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/iep.12330

So there has been a lot of confusion about what amyloid is and isn’t and even the exemplary Derek Lowe got it wrong in a recent post of his

“It needs to be noted that tau is not amyloid, and the TauRx’s drug has failed in the clinic in an Alzheimer’s trial.”

But Tau fibrils are amyloid, and prions are amyloid and the Lewy body is made of amyloid too, if you subscribe to the current definition of amyloid as something that shows a cross-beta pattern on Xray diffraction — https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Schematic-representation-of-the-cross-b-X-ray-diffraction-pattern-typically-produced-by_fig3_293484229.

Take about 500 dishes and stack them on top of each other and that’s the rough dimension of an amyloid fibril.  Each dish is made of a beta sheet.  Xray diffraction was used to characterize amyloid because no one could dissolve it, and study it by Xray crystallography.

Now that we have cryoEM, we’re learning much more.  I have , gone on and on about how miraculous it is that proteins have one or a few shapes — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/why-should-a-protein-have-just-one-shape-or-any-shape-for-that-matter/

So prion strains and the fact that alpha-synuclein amyloid aggregates produce different clinical disease despite having the same amino acid sequence was no surprise to me.

But it gets better.  The prion strains etc. etc may not be due to different structure but different decorations of the same structure by protein modifications.

The same is true for the different diseases that tau amyloid fibrils produce — never mind that they’ve been called neurofibrillary tangles and not amyloid, they have the same cross-beta structure.

A great paper [ Cell vol. 180 pp. 633 – 644 ’20 ] shows how different the tau protofilament from one disease (corticobasal degeneration) is from another (Alzheimer’s disease).  Figure three shows the side chain as it meanders around forming one ‘dish’ in the model above.  The meander is quite different in corticobasal degeneration (CBD) and Alzheimers.

It’s all the stuff tacked on. Tau is modified on its lysines (some 15% of all amino acids in the beta sheet forming part) by ubiquitination, acetylation and trimethylation, and by phosphorylation on serine.

Figure 3 is worth more of a look because it shows how different the post-translational modifications are of the same amino acid stretch of the tau protein in the Alzheimer’s and CBD.  Why has this not been seen before — because the amyloid was treated with pronase and other enzymes to get better pictures on cryoEM.  Isn’t that amazing.  Someone is probably looking to see if this explains prion strains.

The question arises — is the chain structure in space different because of the modifications, or are the modifications there because the chain structure in space is different.  This could go either way we have 500+ enzymes (protein kinases) putting phosphate on serine and/or threonine, each looking at a particular protein conformation around the two so they don’t phosphorylate everything — ditto for the enzymes that put ubiquitin on proteins.

Fascinating times.  Imagine something as simple as pronase hiding all this beautiful structure.



What are prions for?

Prions existed in yeast billions of years before humanity came on the scene. Why are they still there? What are they for?  Immediately we are back in the Aristotelian world of teleology, where everything had a reason for existence and a purpose.  http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/aristotle/themes.html.  Teleology is simply impossible to avoid in biology. “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” is a famous quote from the magnificently named Theodosius Dobzhansky, which clothes naked teleology with respectable scientific garments.

Here’s an example of this sort of thing from back in the day.  When I was back in the Denver VA as a neurology resident dealing with the complications of immunosuppressants in Starzl’s early work on transplantation, we wondered what on earth the transplantation antigens were for.  All we knew then, is that they were important in transplant rejection. Surely they were not there to prevent cells of the same or another species from finding a new home in us.  Only later did we figure out that they were involved in antigen presentation.

A fascinating article from the first Science of the new year — http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6371/eaao5654 describes how the yeast organism might be using one of them (Sup35) — e.g. what the prion domains are for.  Normally the Sup35 protein functions to terminate messenger RNA (mRNA) translation into protein. However the first 123 amino acids of Sup35 can aggregate forming amyloid fibrils.  It contains a series of 9 amino acid repeats with consensus sequence PQGGYQQYN (single letter amino acid code — which is similar to the human prion protein repeats (PHGGGWGQ).

This work showed that under a variety of stesses (energy depletion, lowering of intracellular pH) Sup35 doesn’t form amyloid-like prions, but something rather different — liquidlike spherical condensates, which subsequently solidify to form a protein gel.  Next to the prion domain is a very acidic region, important in formation of the condensate.  Low pH is seen in energy depletion, and protonates the acidic amino acids in the acidic region leading to condensate formation.   A mutated Sup35 containing only the prion domain and the acidic region will form the condensates as well in a pH dependent manner.  The condensates are far from irreversible (like prions) as they quickly disappear when the pH is raised.

If you take out the prion domain from Sup35, the catalytic region (a GTPase) in the carboxy terminal part forms irreversible aggregates — so the prion domain is in some way preventing this.

So basically the two other parts of Sup35 function to protect the business end of Sup35 from being totally put out of commission by irreversible aggregation.

The authors found that yeast cells containing Sup35 lacking the prion domain, after recovering from stress, showed impaired translational activity and a growth defect presumably because there was less functional Sup35 around. This may be what the prion domain is doing.

My guess is that the aggregation of Sup35 into actual prions has a function in yeast that we just haven’t figured out yet.

It will be interesting to see if other yeast prions (there are many) show the similar behavior (condensate formation under stress).

A possible new player

Drug development is very hard because we don’t know all the players inside the cell. A recent paper describes an entirely new class of player — circular DNA derived from an ancient virus.  The authoress is Laura Manuelidis, who would have been a med school classmate had I chosen to go to Yale med instead of Penn.   She is the last scientist standing who doesn’t believe Prusiner’s prion hypothesis.  She didn’t marry the boss’s daughter being female, so she married the boss instead;  Elias Manuelidis a Yale neuropathologist who would be 99 today had he not passed away at 72 in 1992.

The circular DNAs go by the name of SPHINX  an acronym  for  Slow Progressive Hidden INfections of X origin.  They have no sequences in common with bacterial or eukaryotic DNA, but there some homology to a virus infecting Acinebacter, a wound pathogen common in soil and water.

How did she find them?  By doggedly pursuing the idea the neurodegenerative diseases such as Cruetzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD) and scrapie were due to an infectious agent triggering aggregation of the prion protein.

As she says:  “The cytoplasm of CJD and scrapie-infected cells, but not control cells, also contains virus-like particle arrays and because we were able to isolate these nuclease-protected particles with quantitative recovery of infectivity, but with little or no detectable PrP (Prion Protein), we began to analyze protected nucleic acids. Using Φ29 rolling circle amplification, several circular DNA sequences of <5 kb (kilobases) with ORFs (Open Reading Frames) were thereby discovered in brain and cultured neuronal cell lines. These circular DNA sequences were named SPHINX elements for their initial association with slow progressive hidden infections of X origin."

SPHINX itself codes for a 324 amino acid protein, which is found in human brain, concentrated in synaptic boutons.  Strangely, even though the DNAs are presumably viral derived, they contain intervening sequences which don't code for protein.

The use of rolling circle amplification is quite clever, as it will copy only circular DNA.

Stanley Prusiner is sure to weigh in.  Remarkably, Prusiner was at Penn Med when I was and was even in my med school fraternity (Nu Sigma Nu)  primarily a place to eat lunch and dinner.  I probably ate with him, but have no recollection of him whatsoever.

Circular DNAs outside chromosomes are called plasmids. Bacteria are full of them. The best known eukaryote containing plasmids is yeast. Perhaps we have them as well. Manuelidis may be the first person to look.