Prion strains: shining new light on old concepts

Alyssa J. Block, Jason C. Bartz

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Prion diseases are a group of inevitably fatal neurodegenerative disorders affecting numerous mammalian species, including humans. The existence of heritable phenotypes of disease in the natural host suggested that prions exist as distinct strains. Transmission of sheep scrapie to rodent models accelerated prion research, resulting in the isolation and characterization of numerous strains with distinct characteristics. These strains are grouped into categories based on the incubation period of disease in different strains of mice and also by how stable the strain properties were upon serial passage. These classical studies defined the host and agent parameters that affected strain properties, and, prior to the advent of the prion hypothesis, strain properties were hypothesized to be the result of mutations in a nucleic acid genome of a conventional pathogen. The development of the prion hypothesis challenged the paradigm of infectious agents, and, initially, the existence of strains was difficult to reconcile with a protein-only agent. In the decades since, much evidence has revealed how a protein-only infectious agent can perform complex biological functions. The prevailing hypothesis is that strain-specific conformations of PrPSc encode prion strain diversity. This hypothesis can provide a mechanism to explain the observed strain-specific differences in incubation period of disease, biochemical properties of PrPSc, tissue tropism, and subcellular patterns of pathology. This hypothesis also explains how prion strains mutate, evolve, and adapt to new species. These concepts are applicable to prion-like diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, where evidence of strain diversity is beginning to emerge.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalCell and Tissue Research
StateAccepted/In press - 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Histology
  • Cell Biology


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