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J Mol Biol. 1995 Jul 21;250(4):514-26.

Conformational transitions in peptides containing two putative alpha-helices of the prion protein.

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Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of California, San Francisco 94143-0518, USA.


Prions are composed largely, if not entirely, of the scrapie isoform of the prion protein (PrPSc). Conversion of the cellular isoform (PrPC) to PrPSc is accompanied by a diminution in the alpha-helical content and an increase in the beta-sheet structure. To investigate the structural basis of this transition, peptide fragments corresponding to Syrian hamster PrP residues 90 to 145 and 109 to 141, which contain the most conserved residues of the prion protein and the first two putative alpha-helical regions in a PrPC model, were studied using infrared spectroscopy and circular dichroism. The peptides could be induced to form alpha-helical structures in aqueous solutions in the presence of organic solvents, such as trifluoroethanol and hexafluoroisopropanol, or detergents, such as sodium dodecyl sulfate and dodecyl phosphocholine. NaCl at physiological concentration or acetonitrile induced the peptides to acquire substantial beta-sheet. The intermolecular nature of the beta-sheet was evident in the formation of rod-shaped polymers as detected by electron microscopy. Resistance to hydrolysis by proteinase K and epitope mapping argue that the beta-sheet structures were formed by the interaction of residues lying between 109 and 141. A similar range of residues was shown by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to be capable of forming alpha-helices. The alpha-helical structures seem to require a hydrophobic support from either intermolecular interactions or the hydrophobic environment provided by micelles, in agreement with the predicted hydrophobic nature of the packing surface among the four putative helices of PrPC and the outer surfaces of the first two helices. Our results suggest that perturbation of the packing environment of the highly conserved residues is a possible mechanism for triggering the conversion of PrPC to PrPSc where alpha-helices appear to be converted into beta-sheets.

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