'Protein-only' prions confirmed in FSU yeast study

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.--A key discovery about how prions -- mysterious bits of protein thought to be the cause of mad cow disease and similar brain disorders -- infect healthy cells is being hailed by scientists as a breakthrough in the quest to understand the role of these proteins in neurological diseases.

The findings by two Florida State University scientists are described in the March 18 issue of the journal Nature.

What they found, according to co-discoverer Chih-Yen King, is the "first definitive proof" that prions can transfer heritable traits from one living system to another without the help of gene-carrying DNA or its cousin RNA, compounds called nucleic acids. The finding means that what school kids have been taught for decades -- that DNA is the basis of all heredity, including the transmission of deadly diseases -- now must be revisited, says Donald Caspar, a structural biologist based in FSU's Institute of Molecular Biophysics. King and his co-discoverer, Ruben Diaz-Avalos, are post-doctoral scientists in Caspar's lab.

King and Diaz-Avalos, working with yeast cultures, isolated and identified three different strains of yeast prions, each of which were found to originate from the same protein molecule that, for reasons yet unknown, turned into infectious prions. The team found that these all-protein particles act like genes in transferring life-changing information in yeast cells without relying on DNA or RNA as the information carriers.

Work by Jonathan Weissman at the University of California, San Francisco, whose research also appears in Nature, reached the same conclusions as the FSU scientists, albeit from a different angle. Also using yeast cultures as a model, Weissman's group isolated and identified two distinct yeast prion strains caused by "protein-only" prions.

Collectively, the research helps resolve the most puzzling question in prion research, King said. Since prions were first hypothesized in 1982 by Stanl

Contact: Ross Ellington
Florida State University

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