The mammalian prion protein (PrPC) is a cellular protein of unknown function, an altered isoform of which (PrPSc) is a component of the infectious particle (prion) thought to be responsible for spongiform encephalopathies in humans and animals.
We report here the isolation of a cDNA that encodes a chicken protein that is homologous to PrPC. This chicken prion-like protein (ch-PrLP) is identical to the mouse PrP at 33% of its amino acid positions, including an uninterrupted stretch of 24 identical residues, and it displays the same structural domains. In addition, ch-PrLP, like its mammalian counterpart, is attached to the cell surface by a glycosyl-phosphatidylinositol anchor.
We find that ch-PrLP is the major protein in preparations of an acetylcholine receptor-inducing activity that has been purified greater than 10(6)-fold from brain on the basis of its ability to stimulate synthesis of nicotinic receptors by cultured myotubes. The ch-PrLP gene is expressed in the spinal cord and brain as early as embryonic day 6; and in the spinal cord, the protein appears to be concentrated in motor neurons.
Our results therefore raise the possibility that prion proteins serve normally to regulate the chemoreceptor number at the neuromuscular junction and perhaps in the central nervous system as well.