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…prions, bits of infectious protein that can cause fatal neurodegenerative disease such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or "mad cow disease," have the ability to adapt to survive in a new host environment.
…"We found that when a particular prion strain is transferred from brain cells to a different cell line, its properties gradually change, giving rise to a variant strain that is better adapted to this new cellular environment," said Charles Weissmann, M.D., Ph.D., the head of Scripps Florida's Department of Infectology, who led the study. "If those same prions are subsequently transferred to another cell line, they change again, adapting to these new host cells. And if returned to the brain, the prions gradually regain their original properties. We found physical evidence that, at least in one case, the fold of the prion changed when its properties changed."
…The new study suggests that prion populations constitute a "quasi-species" similar in nature to RNA viruses and retroviruses, such as flu viruses and HIV.
"The fact that they behave like viruses doesn't mean they're anything like a virus," he said. "A bicycle is like a car in that it gets you from one place to the other, but they're not the same. The end effect is the same, however. Prions and viruses are both able to change their structure to survive."
…scientists have discovered that misfolded proteins (are) …helping cells navigate the dicey current of natural selection by expressing a variety of hidden genetic traits.
…when it misfolds into a prion conformation, Sup35 gets sloppy, and the cell reads beyond the stop codons, translating genetic information that previously had been dormant. As a result, the cell's phenotype changes.
And here's where evolution comes in.
On those rare occasions when, due to a particular environment, the altered properties of the cell provide it with a survival advantage, the cell passes that trait on to its progeny. …when the daughter cells are mated and genetic reassortment takes place, they can subsequently pass along this same trait without the prion. That is, the trait becomes fixed in the cell's lineage and no longer depends on the prion state.
The prion thus appears to function as an evolutionary stepping stone, affording the population of cells a chance to survive in a new environment where they need a different phenotype until they can acquire the genetic changes that produce the same effect.
What Blew YOUR Mind in 2010?
Scientists have created the world's first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved.
Craig Venter, the pioneering US geneticist behind the experiment, said the achievement heralds the dawn of a new era in which new life is made to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines.
However critics, including some religious groups, condemned the work, with one organisation warning that artificial organisms could escape into the wild and cause environmental havoc or be turned into biological weapons. Others said Venter was playing God.