Prions as protein-based genetic elements

Annu Rev Microbiol. 2002;56:703-41. doi: 10.1146/annurev.micro.56.013002.100603. Epub 2002 Jan 30.


Fungal prions are fascinating protein-based genetic elements. They alter cellular phenotypes through self-perpetuating changes in protein conformation and are cytoplasmically partitioned from mother cell to daughter. The four prions of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Podospora anserina affect diverse biological processes: translational termination, nitrogen regulation, inducibility of other prions, and heterokaryon incompatibility. They share many attributes, including unusual genetic behaviors, that establish criteria to identify new prions. Indeed, other fungal traits that baffled microbiologists meet some of these criteria and might be caused by prions. Recent research has provided notable insight about how prions are induced and propagated and their many biological roles. The ability to become a prion appears to be evolutionarily conserved in two cases. [PSI(+)] provides a mechanism for genetic variation and phenotypic diversity in response to changing environments. All available evidence suggests that prions epigenetically modulate a wide variety of fundamental biological processes, and many await discovery.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Fungal Proteins / genetics
  • Fungal Proteins / metabolism
  • Fungi / genetics
  • Models, Genetic
  • Peptide Termination Factors
  • Prions / classification
  • Prions / genetics*
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins*
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Yeasts / genetics
  • Yeasts / metabolism


  • Fungal Proteins
  • Peptide Termination Factors
  • Prions
  • SUP35 protein, S cerevisiae
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins