The unique phenotypic characteristics of mammalian prions are thought to be encoded in the conformation of pathogenic prion proteins (PrPSc). The molecular mechanism responsible for the adaptation, mutation, and evolution of prions observed in cloned cells and upon crossing the species barrier remains unsolved. Using biophysical techniques and conformation-dependent immunoassays in tandem, we isolated two distinct populations of PrPSc particles with different conformational stabilities and aggregate sizes, which frequently co-exist in the most common human prion disease, sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (sCJD). The protein misfolding cyclic amplification (PMCA) replicates each of the PrPSc particle types independently, and leads to the competitive selection of those with lower initial conformational stability. In serial propagation with a nonglycosylated mutant PrPC substrate, the dominant PrPSc conformers are subject to further evolution by natural selection of the subpopulation with the highest replication rate due to its lowest stability. Cumulatively, the data show that sCJD PrPSc is not a single conformational entity, but a dynamic collection of two distinct populations of particles. This implies the co-existence of different prions, whose adaptation and evolution are governed by the selection of progressively less stable, faster replicating PrPSc conformers.
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