The red splotches invading these lab-grown mouse nerve cells are prions – rogue protein molecules responsible for incurable diseases such as scrapie in sheep and goats, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) and Creutzfeld-Jacob disease in humans. These infectious agents are the 'dark side' of normal prion molecules found in healthy cells, carrying mutations that make them take on the wrong shape. They then corrupt other regular prions into taking on an abnormal conformation, creating large protein clumps inside nerve cells that damage the brain and eventually lead to death. By studying synthetic prions like the ones shown here, grown in bacteria in the lab and injected into mice, researchers are starting to figure out exactly how these dangerous molecules exert their influence inside cells and how they spread through the brain. In turn, this could lead to much-needed strategies for prevention or even cures in the future.
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