The shapeshifters

By Sylvia Pagán Westphal PITY the poor prion protein. If ever biology had a case of “give a dog a bad name”, this is it. Prions are known almost exclusively for their role in BSE, CJD and other prion diseases. Their principal claim to notoriety is the ability to morph from an inoffensive shape into a rogue one that causes other prion molecules to follow suit, setting off a deadly chain reaction. But perhaps it won’t be long before this most maligned of molecules enjoys a change of image. A number of scientists are starting to believe that the ability to shape-shift might not be so sinister after all. For example, a Nobel prizewinning neuroscientist has stumbled upon a prion-like protein that, instead of causing disease, might change shape in order to play a vital function in memory (see “Memory makes its mark”). And a biochemist thinks he has uncovered a whole family of proteins that shift from one form to another. These proteins appear to share a number of characteristics with the prion protein. Is it possible, then, that the ability to acquire and transmit a wholesale change in shape is not unique to prions and not always a bad thing – perhaps even a part of normal biology? Biochemist James Morré from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, certainly thinks so. He has become convinced that our cells contain thousands of proteins that flip-flop from one form to another and back again, playing a key role in the body’s timekeeping. The reason these proteins can keep time, he says,
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