A principle that has emerged from studies of protein aggregation is that proteins typically can misfold into a range of different aggregated forms. Moreover, the phenotypic and pathological consequences of protein aggregation depend critically on the specific misfolded form. A striking example of this is the prion strain phenomenon, in which prion particles composed of the same protein cause distinct heritable states. Accumulating evidence from yeast prions such as [PSI+] and mammalian prions argues that differences in the prion conformation underlie prion strain variants. Nonetheless, it remains poorly understood why changes in the conformation of misfolded proteins alter their physiological effects. Here we present and experimentally validate an analytical model describing how [PSI+] strain phenotypes arise from the dynamic interaction among the effects of prion dilution, competition for a limited pool of soluble protein, and conformation-dependent differences in prion growth and division rates. Analysis of three distinct prion conformations of yeast Sup35 (the [PSI+] protein determinant) and their in vivo phenotypes reveals that the Sup35 amyloid causing the strongest phenotype surprisingly shows the slowest growth. This slow growth, however, is more than compensated for by an increased brittleness that promotes prion division. The propensity of aggregates to undergo breakage, thereby generating new seeds, probably represents a key determinant of their physiological impact for both infectious (prion) and non-infectious amyloids.
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