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Annu Rev Microbiol. 2002;56:703-41. Epub 2002 Jan 30.

Prions as protein-based genetic elements.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, University of Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA.


Fungal prions are fascinating protein-based genetic elements. They alter cellular phenotypes through self-perpetuating changes in protein conformation and are cytoplasmically partitioned from mother cell to daughter. The four prions of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Podospora anserina affect diverse biological processes: translational termination, nitrogen regulation, inducibility of other prions, and heterokaryon incompatibility. They share many attributes, including unusual genetic behaviors, that establish criteria to identify new prions. Indeed, other fungal traits that baffled microbiologists meet some of these criteria and might be caused by prions. Recent research has provided notable insight about how prions are induced and propagated and their many biological roles. The ability to become a prion appears to be evolutionarily conserved in two cases. [PSI(+)] provides a mechanism for genetic variation and phenotypic diversity in response to changing environments. All available evidence suggests that prions epigenetically modulate a wide variety of fundamental biological processes, and many await discovery.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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