The third and most recently identified Parkinson's disease-linked variant of the neuronal protein alpha-synuclein to be identified (E46K) results in widespread brain pathology and early onset Parkinson symptoms (Zarranz et al. (2004) Ann. Neurol. 55, 164-173). Herein, we present biochemical and biophysical characterization of E46K alpha-synuclein in various states of aggregation. Circular dichroism and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy illustrate that the E46K mutation results in subtle changes in the conformation of the monomeric protein both free in solution and in the presence of SDS micelles. However, it does not alter the overall helical propensity of the protein in the presence of phospholipids. E46K alpha-synuclein formed insoluble fibrils in vitro more rapidly than the wild type protein, and electron microscopy revealed that E46K alpha-synuclein fibrils possess a typical amyloid ultrastructure. E46K alpha-synuclein protofibrils, soluble aggregates that form during the transition from the monomeric form to the fibrillar form of alpha-synuclein, were characterized by electron microscopy and gel filtration and were found to include annular species. The unique ability of a subfraction of E46K and wild type alpha-synuclein protofibrils containing porelike species to permeabilize lipid vesicles was demonstrated in vitro using a real-time chromatographic method. In contrast to simplistic expectations, the total amount of protofibrils and the amount of permeabilizing activity per mole protein in the protofibril fraction were reduced by the E46K mutation. These results suggest that if the porelike activity of alpha-synuclein is important for neurotoxicity, there must be factors in the neuronal cytoplasm that reverse the trends in the intrinsic properties of E46K versus WT alpha-synuclein that are observed in vitro.