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Nat Rev Genet. 2005 Jun;6(6):435-50.

Prions as adaptive conduits of memory and inheritance.

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  • 1Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Nine Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA. shorter@wi.mit.edu


Changes in protein conformation drive most biological processes, but none have seized the imagination of scientists and the public alike as have the self-replicating conformations of prions. Prions transmit lethal neurodegenerative diseases by means of the food chain. However, self-replicating protein conformations can also constitute molecular memories that transmit genetic information. Here, we showcase definitive evidence for the prion hypothesis and discuss examples in which prion-encoded heritable information has been harnessed during evolution to confer selective advantages. We then describe situations in which prion-enciphered events might have essential roles in long-term memory formation, transcriptional memory and genome-wide expression patterns.

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