Proteinase K and the structure of PrPSc: The good, the bad and the ugly

Virus Res. 2015 Sep 2;207:120-6. doi: 10.1016/j.virusres.2015.03.008. Epub 2015 Mar 24.


Infectious proteins (prions) are, ironically, defined by their resistance to proteolytic digestion. A defining characteristic of the transmissible isoform of the prion protein (PrP(Sc)) is its partial resistance to proteinase K (PK) digestion. Diagnosis of prion disease typically relies upon immunodetection of PK-digested PrP(Sc) by Western blot, ELISA or immunohistochemical detection. PK digestion has also been used to detect differences in prion strains. Thus, PK has been a crucial tool to detect and, thereby, control the spread of prions. PK has also been used as a tool to probe the structure of PrP(Sc). Mass spectrometry and antibodies have been used to identify PK cleavage sites in PrP(Sc). These results have been used to identify the more accessible, flexible stretches connecting the β-strand components in PrP(Sc). These data, combined with physical constraints imposed by spectroscopic results, were used to propose a qualitative model for the structure of PrP(Sc). Assuming that PrP(Sc) is a four rung β-solenoid, we have threaded the PrP sequence to satisfy the PK proteolysis data and other experimental constraints.

Keywords: Limited proteolysis; PrP(Sc); PrP(Sc) structure; Prion; Proteinase K; β-Solenoid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Endopeptidase K / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • PrPSc Proteins / chemistry*
  • PrPSc Proteins / genetics
  • PrPSc Proteins / metabolism*
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational
  • Protein Structure, Secondary


  • PrPSc Proteins
  • Endopeptidase K