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FASEB J. 1991 Oct;5(13):2799-807.

Prions and prion proteins.

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  • 1Department of Neurology, University of California, San Francisco 94143-0518.


Neurodegenerative diseases of animals and humans including scrapie, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are caused by unusual infectious pathogens called prions. There is no evidence for a nucleic acid in the prion, but diverse experimental results indicate that a host-derived protein called PrPSc is a component of the infectious particle. Experiments with scrapie-infected cultured cells show that PrPSc is derived from a normal cellular protein called PrPC through an unknown posttranslational process. We have analyzed the amino acid sequence and posttranslational modifications of PrPSc and its proteolytically truncated core PrP 27-30 to identify potential candidate modifications that could distinguish PrPSc from PrPC. The amino acid sequence of PrP 27-30 corresponds to that predicted from the gene and cDNA. Mass spectrometry of peptides derived from PrPSc has revealed numerous modifications including two N-linked carbohydrate moieties, removal of an amino-terminal signal sequence, and alternative COOH termini. Most molecules contain a glycosylinositol phospholipid (GPI) attached at Ser-231 that results in removal of 23 amino acids from the COOH terminus, whereas 15% of the protein molecules are truncated to end at Gly-228. The structure of the GPI from PrPSc has been analyzed and found to be novel, including the presence of sialic acid. Other experiments suggest that the N-linked oligosaccharides are not necessary for PrPSc formation. Although detailed comparison of PrPSc with PrPC is required, there is no obvious way in which any of the modifications might confer upon PrPSc its unusual physical properties and allow it to act as a component of the prion. If no chemical difference is found between PrPC and PrPSc, then the two isoforms of the prion protein may differ only in their conformations or by the presence of bound cellular components.

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