"Protein aggregates" contain RNA and DNA, entrapped by misfolded proteins but largely rescued by slowing translational elongation

Aging Cell. 2021 May;20(5):e13326. doi: 10.1111/acel.13326. Epub 2021 Mar 31.


All neurodegenerative diseases feature aggregates, which usually contain disease-specific diagnostic proteins; non-protein constituents, however, have rarely been explored. Aggregates from SY5Y-APPSw neuroblastoma, a cell model of familial Alzheimer's disease, were crosslinked and sequences of linked peptides identified. We constructed a normalized "contactome" comprising 11 subnetworks, centered on 24 high-connectivity hubs. Remarkably, all 24 are nucleic acid-binding proteins. This led us to isolate and sequence RNA and DNA from Alzheimer's and control aggregates. RNA fragments were mapped to the human genome by RNA-seq and DNA by ChIP-seq. Nearly all aggregate RNA sequences mapped to specific genes, whereas DNA fragments were predominantly intergenic. These nucleic acid mappings are all significantly nonrandom, making an artifactual origin extremely unlikely. RNA (mostly cytoplasmic) exceeded DNA (chiefly nuclear) by twofold to fivefold. RNA fragments recovered from AD tissue were ~1.5-to 2.5-fold more abundant than those recovered from control tissue, similar to the increase in protein. Aggregate abundances of specific RNA sequences were strikingly differential between cultured SY5Y-APPSw glioblastoma cells expressing APOE3 vs. APOE4, consistent with APOE4 competition for E-box/CLEAR motifs. We identified many G-quadruplex and viral sequences within RNA and DNA of aggregates, suggesting that sequestration of viral genomes may have driven the evolution of disordered nucleic acid-binding proteins. After RNA-interference knockdown of the translational-procession factor EEF2 to suppress translation in SY5Y-APPSw cells, the RNA content of aggregates declined by >90%, while reducing protein content by only 30% and altering DNA content by ≤10%. This implies that cotranslational misfolding of nascent proteins may ensnare polysomes into aggregates, accounting for most of their RNA content.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; DNA; RNA; aggregation; apolipoprotein E; beta amyloid; cotranslational misfolding; endogenous viruses; functional annotation; gene ontology; neurodegeneration; nucleic acid sequence; nucleic acids; protein aggregates; proteomics; retrotransposons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism
  • Chromatin Immunoprecipitation Sequencing
  • DNA / metabolism*
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Glioma / metabolism
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Peptide Chain Elongation, Translational*
  • Protein Aggregates*
  • Protein Folding
  • RNA / metabolism*
  • RNA, Viral / metabolism
  • RNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • RNA-Seq


  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Protein Aggregates
  • RNA, Viral
  • RNA-Binding Proteins
  • RNA
  • DNA