Tag Archives: Theodosius Dobzhansky

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).


The most interesting thing to an evolutionist is not that APOE4 increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Neurologists were immensely excited by the discovery 25 years ago that the APOE4 variant of APOlipoprotein E increases the risk of Late Onset Alzheimer’s Disease (LOAD). 24,000 papers later (Google Scholar) we still don’t know how it does it. Should all this work have been done ? Of course ! !  Once we know the mechanism(s) by which APOE4 increases Alzheimer’s risk we’ll have new ideas to help us attack.

The APOE gene has 3 variants (alleles) APOE2, 3 and 4. The protein is average sized (299 amino acids). The 3 alleles differ at two positions (amino acids #112 and #158) where either cysteine or arginine can be found. The frequency of APOE4 is 14% in the adult white population, that of E3 is 78% and that of E2 is 8%.

Fascinating as this all is, it’s not what’s interesting from an evolutionary point of view.

[ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 113 pp. 17 – 18, 74 – 79 ’16 ] Postmenpausal longevity in females is not limited to humans. Humans, orcas and pilot whales are the only vertebrate species known to have prolonged postreproductive lifespans. Our fertility ends at about the same age that fertility ends in other female hominids (the great apes). However, apes rarely live into their 40s (even in captivity).

Unlike APOE4, APOE2 and APOE3 protect against late onset Alzheimer’s.

The fascinating point is that APOE2 and APOE3 aren’t found in the great apes. They are a human invention. Now LOAD occurs well past reproduction, so there should be no reason in terms of reproductive success for them to arise and be more common in human populations than the original APOE4.

Even more interesting is some work on another protein CD33, found on immune cells and glia in the brain [ Neuron vol. 78 pp. 575 – 577, 631 – 643 ’13 ] A minor allele (21% frequency in human populations) of CD33 (SNP rs 3865444) protects against Alzheimer’s. The allele is associated with reductions in CD33 expression in microglia, and also with reduction in levels of insoluble Abeta42 in (Alzheimer’s) brain. The numbers of CD33+ microglia correlate with insoluble Abeta42 levels and amyloid plaque burden. So decreasing (or inhibiting) CD33 function might help Alzheimer patients.

Again the protective allele is only found in man. The great apes don’t have it just the major (nonprotective) allele.

Again, there is no way that having the allele directly improves your reproductive success. By the time it is protecting you, you’re infertile.

What in the world is going on? Why did alleles protective against Alzheimer’s arise in two very different proteins in the course of human evolution?

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” — Mark Twain.

The reason these alleles probably arose gets us in to an ancient battle in evolutionary theory — what is the actual unit of selection? It may be the group rather than the individual. Face it, human infants and children are helpless for longer than other primates, and need others to care for them, for at least 5 years. Who better than grandma and grandpa? So the fact that with granny around more children survive to reproduce constitutes group selection (I think).

As Theodosius Dobzhansky said “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”