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J Mol Biol. 2001 Aug 3;311(1):173-82.

Polyglutamine aggregation behavior in vitro supports a recruitment mechanism of cytotoxicity.

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Graduate School of Medicine, University of Tennessee Medical Center, 1924 Alcoa Highway, Knoxville, TN 37920, USA.


In expanded CAG repeat diseases such as Huntington's disease, proteins containing polyglutamine (poly(Gln)) sequences with repeat lengths of about 37 residues or more are associated with development of both disease symptoms and neuronal intranuclear inclusions (NIIs). Disease physiology in animal and cellular models does not always correlate with NII formation, however, and the mechanism by which aggregate formation might lead to cytotoxicity is unknown. To help evaluate various possible mechanisms, we determined the biophysical properties of a series of simple poly(Gln) peptides. The circular dichroism spectra of poly(Gln) peptides with repeat lengths of five, 15, 28 and 44 residues are all nearly identical and are consistent with a high degree of random coil structure, suggesting that the length-dependence of disease is not related to a conformational change in the monomeric states of expanded poly(Gln) sequences. In contrast, there is a dramatic increase in both the kinetics and the thermodynamic favorability of the spontaneous formation of ordered, amyloid-like aggregates for poly(Gln) peptides with repeat lengths of greater than 37 residues. At the same time, poly(Gln) peptides with repeat lengths in the 15-20 residue range, despite their poor abilities to support spontaneous, self-nucleated aggregation, are capable of efficiently adding to an already-formed aggregate. We also find that morphologically small, finely divided aggregates are much more efficient at recruiting poly(Gln) peptides than are large aggregates, suggesting a possible explanation for why disease pathology does not always correlate with the observable NII burden. Together, these data are consistent with a model for disease pathology in which critical cellular proteins possessing poly(Gln) sequences of modest length become inactivated when they are recruited into aggregates of an expanded poly(Gln) protein.

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