International Microbiology, Vol 1, No 3 (1998)

Prions: an evolutionary perspective

Alfonso Ogayar, Miguel Sánchez-Pérez


Studies in both prion-due diseases in mammals and some non-Mendelian hereditary processes in yeasts have demonstrated that certain proteins are able to transmit structural information and self-replication. This induces the corresponding conformational changes in other proteins with identical or similar sequences. This ability of proteins may have been very useful during prebiotic chemical evolution, prior to the establishment of the genetic code. During this stage, proteins (proteinoids) must have molded and selected their structural folding units through direct interaction with the environment. The proteinoids that acquired the ability to propagate their conformations (which we refer to as conformons) would have acted as reservoirs and transmitters of a given structural information and hence could have acted as selectors for conformational changes. Despite the great advantage that arose from the establishment of the genetic code, the ability to propagate conformational changes did not necessarily disappear. Depending on the degree of involvement of this capacity in biological evolution, we propose two not mutually exclusive hypotheses: (i) extant prions could be an atavism of ancestral conformons, which would have co-evolved with cells, and (ii) the evolution of conformons would have produced cellular proteins, able to transmit structural information, and, in some cases, participating in certain processes of regulation and epigenesis. Therefore, prions could also be seen as conformons of a conventional infectious agent (or one that co-evolved with it independently) that, after a longer or shorter adaptive period, would have interacted with conformons from the host cells.

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