Intriguingly, certain prions and amyloids can play beneficial roles. The subject of the new study, Sup35, enables protein-based inheritance in yeast. When this prion protein misfolds, it converts into self-perpetuating amyloid fibrils, thus altering its function in an inheritable manner. The research team used a combination of advanced biophysical methods to investigate these processes.
"By focusing on single unfolded prions, we were able to define the dynamics of two distinct regions or domains that determine conversion dynamics," said Ashok A. Deniz, a Scripps Research scientist who led the study. "Our research techniques can now be used to probe the structures of other amyloidogenic proteins. This could prove important in understanding the basic biology of amyloid formation, as well as in designing strategies against misfolding diseases."
Interestingly, the new study revealed that yeast prion protein Sup35 lacks a specific, static structure in its native collapsed state. Instead, the compact protein fluctuates among several different structures before forming intermediate shapes during the amyloid assembly process.
The intermediate stages of the process are critically important, Deniz noted: "No single native unfolded protein is capable of initiating the amyloid cascade because of this constant shape-shifting. To start the amyloid conversion process, it has to first convert to an intermediate species, consisting of multiple protein molecules. This insight may be important to finding potential new therapeutic targets for disease-causing amyloids."