In a variety of systems, proteins have been linked to processes historically limited to nucleic acids, such as infectivity and inheritance. These atypical proteins, termed prions, lack sequence homology but are collectively defined by their capacity to adopt multiple physical and therefore functional states in vivo. Newly synthesized prion protein generally adopts the form already present in the cell, and this in vivo folding bias directs the near faithful transmission of the corresponding phenotypic state. Switches between the prion and non-prion phenotypes can occur in vivo; however, the fate of existing protein during these transitions and its effects on the emergence of new traits remain major unanswered questions. Here, we determine the changes in protein-state that induce phenotypic switching for the yeast prion Sup35/[PSI+]. We show that the prion form does not need to be specified by an alternate misfolding pathway initiated during Sup35 synthesis but instead can be accessed by mature protein. This remodelling of protein from one stable form to another is accompanied by the loss of Sup35 activity, evoking a rapid change in cellular phenotype within a single cell cycle.
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