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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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Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Nine Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA.


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.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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