Biochemical characterization of the yeast prions has revealed many similarities with the mammalian amyloidogenic proteins. The ease of generating in vivo mutations in yeast and the developing in vitro models for [PSI+] and [URE3] circumvent many of the difficulties of studying the proteins linked to the mammalian amyloidoses. Future work especially aimed at understanding the molecular role of chaperone proteins in regulating conversion as well as the early steps in de novo formation of the prion state in yeast will likely provide invaluable lessons that may be more broadly applicable to related processes in higher eukaryotes. It is important to remember, however, that there are clear distinctions between disease states associated with amyloidogenesis and the epigenetic modulation of protein function by self-perpetuating conformational conversions. Amyloid formation is detrimental to mammals and is likely selected against, providing a possible explanation for the late onset of these disorders (Lansbury, 1999). In contrast, the known yeast prions are compatible with normal growth and, if beneficial to the organism, may be subject to evolutionary pressures that ultimately maximize transmission. In the prion proteins examined to date, distinct domains are responsible for normal function and for the conformational switches producing a prion conversion of that function. Recent work has demonstrated that the prion domains are both modular and transferable to other proteins on which they can confer a heritable epigenetic alteration of function (Edskes et al., 1999; Li and Lindquist, 2000; Patino et al., 1996; Santoso et al., 2000; Sondheimer and Lindquist, 2000). That is, prion domains need not coevolve with particular functional domains but might be moved from one protein to another during evolution. Such processes may be widely used in biology. Mechanistic studies of [PSI+] and [URE3] replication are sure to lay a foundation of knowledge for understanding a host of nonconventional genetic elements that currently remain elusive.
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