Eco-evolutionary trade-offs in the dynamics of prion strain competition

Saul Acevedo, Alexander J. Stewart*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prion and prion-like molecules are a type of self-replicating aggregate protein that have been implicated in a variety of neurodegenerative diseases. Over recent decades, the molecular dynamics of prions have been characterized both empirically and through mathematical models, providing insights into the epidemiology of prion diseases and the impact of prions on the evolution of cellular processes. At the same time, a variety of evidence indicates that prions are themselves capable of a form of evolution, in which changes to their structure that impact their rate of growth or fragmentation are replicated, making such changes subject to natural selection. Here we study the role of such selection in shaping the characteristics of prions under the nucleated polymerization model (NPM). We show that fragmentation rates evolve to an evolutionary stable value which balances rapid reproduction of PrPSc aggregates with the need to produce stable polymers. We further show that this evolved fragmentation rate differs in general from the rate that optimizes transmission between cells. We find that under the NPM, prions that are both evolutionary stable and optimized for transmission have a characteristic length of three times the critical length below which they become unstable. Finally, we study the dynamics of inter-cellular competition between strains, and show that the eco-evolutionary trade-off between intra- and inter-cellular competition favours coexistence.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20230905
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences
Issue number2002
Early online date5 Jul 2023
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jul 2023


  • Eco-evolutionary trade-offs
  • Adaptive dynamics
  • Prions


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