According to the prion hypothesis, atypical phenotypes arise when a prion protein adopts an alternative conformation and persist when that form assembles into self-replicating aggregates. Amyloid formation in vitro provides a model for this protein-misfolding pathway, but the mechanism by which this process interacts with the cellular environment to produce transmissible phenotypes is poorly understood. Using the yeast prion Sup35/[PSI(+)], we found that protein conformation determined the size distribution of aggregates through its interactions with a molecular chaperone. Shifts in this range created variations in aggregate abundance among cells because of a size threshold for transmission, and this heterogeneity, along with aggregate growth and fragmentation, induced age-dependent fluctuations in phenotype. Thus, prion conformations may specify phenotypes as population averages in a dynamic system.
Derdowski A, Sindi SS, Klaips CL, DiSalvo S, Serio TR. (2010). A size threshold limits prion transmission and establishes phenotypic diversity. Science (New York, N.Y.), 330(6004)