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Scripps Research scientists show prions mutate and adapt to host environment
Date:12/17/2010

e faster an evolutionary advantage and become the dominant strain. This new population also contains variants, one of which may be selected over others when transferred to a different host.

"The result is that prions, although devoid of genetic material, behave similarly to viruses and other pathogens, in that they can mutate and undergo evolutionary selection," Weissmann said. "They do it by changing their fold, while viruses incur changes in their nucleic acid sequence."

Diverse Yet Related

The new study suggests that prion populations constitute a "quasi-species" similar in nature to RNA viruses and retroviruses, such as flu viruses and HIV.

The idea of a quasi-species was first conceived by Manfred Eigen, a German biophysicist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1967. Basically, a quasi-species is a complex, self-perpetuating population of diverse and related entities that act as a whole. It was Weissmann, however, who in 1978 provided the first confirmation of the theory through the study of a particular bacteriophage a virus that infects bacteria while he was director of the Institut fr Molekularbiologie in Zrich, Switzerland.

But that's where the comparison ends, Weissmann said.

"The fact that they behave like viruses doesn't mean they're anything like a virus," he said. "A bicycle is like a car in that it gets you from one place to the other, but they're not the same. The end effect is the same, however. Prions and viruses are both able to change their structure to survive."


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Contact: Mika Ono
mikaono@scripps.edu
858-784-2052
Scripps Research Institute
Source:Eurekalert

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