Visualizing Prions: Graphic Representations and the Biography of Prions

Part of the Science, Technology and Medicine in Modern History book series (STMMH)


Prions are proteins generally characterized by the ability to exist in two different forms or more precisely two different three-dimensional structures, one of them possibly causing disease when it aggregates. The prion hypothesis, as formulated by Stanley Prusiner, states that this aggregation causes specific neurological diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Even if both the mechanisms of this change of conformation and that of the aggregation are still enigmatic, the prion hypothesis has become a dominant model to which much heuristic power has been attributed in the 1990s. This could be a first paradox. Moreover, whereas three-dimensional structures clearly appear to be at the heart of the matter, Prusiner used mostly biochemical evidence to develop his hypothesis, without using, in the early days, any other graphic representations than that given by electron microscopy. This constitutes the second paradox at the origin of the present chapter since only computer representations of three-dimensional structures can explain and justify the prion theory as a model. Here, models are defined as theories with two distinct properties. First, models have an explanatory power more or less confirmed by experimental evidence, which distinguishes them from mere hypotheses. Second, models can be applied in domains other than those where they come from. Such application is possible due to the underlying formalism of models, or, as in the prion case, to the diffusion of a specific visualization culture.


Prion Protein Prion Disease Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy Infectious Process Yeast Prion 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2004

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