A prion i/ˈpriːɒn/ is an infectious agent composed of protein in a misfolded form. This is in contrast to all other known infectious agents (virus/bacteria/fungus/parasite) which must contain nucleic acids (either DNA, RNA, or both). The word prion, coined in 1982 by Stanley B. Prusiner, is derived from the words protein and infection.Prions are responsible for the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies in a variety of mammals, includingbovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as “mad cow disease”) in cattle and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) in humans. All known prion diseases affect the structure of the brain or other neural tissue and all are currently untreatable and universally fatal.
Prions propagate by transmitting a misfolded protein state. When a prion enters a healthy organism, it induces existing, properly folded proteins to convert into the disease-associated, prion form; the prion acts as a template to guide the misfolding of more protein into prion form. These newly formed prions can then go on to convert more proteins themselves; this triggers a chain reaction that produces large amounts of the prion form. All known prions induce the formation of an amyloid fold, in which the protein polymerises into an aggregate consisting of tightly packed beta sheets. Amyloid aggregates are fibrils, growing at their ends, and replicating when breakage causes two growing ends to become four growing ends. The incubation period of prion diseases is determined by the exponential growth rate associated with prion replication, which is a balance between the linear growth and the breakage of aggregates. (Note that the propagation of the prion depends on the presence of normally folded protein in which the prion can induce misfolding; animals which do not express the normal form of the prion protein cannot develop or transmit the disease.)
This altered structure is extremely stable and accumulates in infected tissue, causing tissue damage and cell death. This structural stability means that prions are resistant to denaturation by chemical and physical agents, making disposal and containment of these particles difficult. Prions come in different strains, each with a slightly different structure, and most of the time, strains breed true. Prion replication is nevertheless subject to occasional epimutation and then natural selection just like other forms of replication. However, the number of possible distinct prion strains is likely far smaller than the number of possible DNA sequences, so evolution takes place within a limited space.
All known mammalian prion diseases are caused by the so-called prion protein, PrP. The endogenous, properly folded, form is denoted PrPC (for Common orCellular) while the disease-linked, misfolded form is denoted PrPSc (for Scrapie, after one of the diseases first linked to prions and neurodegeneration.) The precise structure of the prion is not known, though they can be formed by combining PrPC, polyadenylic acid, and lipids in a Protein Misfolding Cyclic Amplification (PMCA) reaction.