The shape of harm

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

Sometimes we are forced to see things differently. But it is never easy because we are creatures of habit and, like it or not, shackled by what we were first led to believe. This is exactly what happened with the prion. Prions are proteins whose shape can change under certain conditions, and in so doing be at the heart of fatal diseases. Many afflictions are caused by a change in a protein's 3D structure, so this can hardly be considered a pioneering concept in the world of molecular biology. What is relatively new, however, is the notion that a protein can be the actual cause of infection. An infection is defined by an entity able to transmit, from one organism to another or indeed one cell to another, the information it needs to thrive and propagate. Viruses and bacteria infect organisms by multiplying inside them, killing off cells as they do so and causing havoc in their wake - such as meningitis, the classic flu or AIDS. Some prion proteins, once their shape has changed, are able to behave in the same way and cause neurodegenerative illnesses such as scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in humans for instance. Recently, a prion of a different nature was discovered: one that refuses to change shape. Its name is PrP V127.

Protein Spotlight (ISSN 1424-4721) is a monthly review written by the Swiss-Prot team of the SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics. Spotlight articles describe a specific protein or family of proteins on an informal tone. Follow us: Subscribe · Twitter · Facebook

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A little bit of praise!

“I recently stumbled upon your columns. Let me congratulate you on achieving the near impossible, for your articles have enabled me to successfully marry IT with the Life Sciences and better explain the concepts of bioinformatics to those who are not in the know of the field.

Your articles are very well written, lucid, and contain just enough information to excite the reader to want to learn more about the topic being discussed. They fall in a very rare category where they are accessible to everyone, from the undergraduate students to research students who want to have a basic idea of the topics being discussed. Some of your articles, like "Our hollow architecture" and "Throb" are outstanding pieces.

I would highly recommend your articles as a necessary reading in undergrad classes to get students inspired about the various avenues of research.”

— Rohan Chaubal, Senior Researcher in Genomics, July 2011

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