Proteins capable of self-perpetuating changes in conformation and function (known as prions) can serve as genetic elements. To test whether novel prions could be created by recombinant methods, a yeast prion determinant was fused to the rat glucocorticoid receptor. The fusion protein existed in different heritable functional states, switched between states at a low spontaneous rate, and could be induced to switch by experimental manipulations. The complete change in phenotype achieved by transferring a prion determinant from one protein to another confirms the protein-only nature of prion inheritance and establishes a mechanism for engineering heritable changes in phenotype that should be broadly applicable.
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