Single-molecule approaches to prion protein misfolding

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The structural conversion of the prion protein PrP into a transmissible, misfolded form is the central element of prion disease, yet there is little consensus as to how it occurs. Key aspects of conversion into the diseased state remain unsettled, from details about the earliest stages of misfolding such as the involvement of partially- or fully-unfolded intermediates to the structure of the infectious state. Part of the difficulty in understanding the structural conversion arises from the complexity of the underlying energy landscapes. Single molecule methods provide a powerful tool for probing complex folding pathways as in prion misfolding, because they allow rare and transient events to be observed directly. We discuss recent work applying single-molecule probes to study misfolding in prion proteins, and what it has revealed about the folding dynamics of PrP that may underlie its unique behavior. We also discuss single-molecule studies probing the interactions that stabilize non-native structures within aggregates, pointing the way to future work that may help identify the microscopic events triggering pathogenic conversion. Although single-molecule approaches to misfolding are relatively young, they have a promising future in prion science.

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