Prions are agents of analog, protein conformation-based inheritance that can confer beneficial phenotypes to cells, especially under stress. Combined with genetic variation, prion-mediated inheritance can be channeled into prion-independent genomic inheritance. Latest screening shows that prions are common, at least in fungi. Thus, there is non-negligible flow of information from proteins to the genome in modern cells, in a direct violation of the Central Dogma of molecular biology. The prion-mediated heredity that violates the Central Dogma appears to be a specific, most radical manifestation of the widespread assimilation of protein (epigenetic) variation into genetic variation. The epigenetic variation precedes and facilitates genetic adaptation through a general ‘look-ahead effect’ of phenotypic mutations. This direction of the information flow is likely to be one of the important routes of environment-genome interaction and could substantially contribute to the evolution of complex adaptive traits.
This article was reviewed by Jerzy Jurka, Pierre Pontarotti and Juergen Brosius. For the complete reviews, see the Reviewers’ Reports section.