Preface by W. Arber

"Research into prions and the diseases caused by prions has largely been marked in the past few decades by innovative findings in molecular genetics and the study of protein functions. The results gained from prion research represent a very interesting example of an in-depth insight into the complexity of gene functions and the interactions between biologically-active macromolecules.

Until recently, as a result of poor understanding of the subject, this natural complexity did not receive the attention that it was due, especially from the sciences. With regard to genetic information, this was related to a belief in science that genes “programmed” the processes of life in a very strict way, i.e. exactly “determined” the processes of life. In this extreme formulation, this view is not correct and needs to be corrected both within the scientific community as well as in the increasingly important dialogue with the public.

The limits of genetic predetermination depend, in part, on the natural structural flexibility of biologically active macromolecules. These include proteins, which, as the products of genes, influence the processes of life in many ways. Of course, this influence depends on the structural conformation of the proteins. Depending on their primary structure, i.e. their amino acid sequences, proteins can, in general, adopt several different tertiary structures, each being characterized by a certain, sometimes high, stability. The chances of adopting different conformations can depend on external factors, in particular on the effect of other protein molecules, which are then called chaperones or helper proteins.

The example of prions shows that a given protein molecule can efficiently influence the structure of another protein of the same kind. In addition, it shows that life functions and dysfunctions caused by prions are largely influenced by the conformation of the prion protein. It is, therefore, important that the scientific community makes it clear to scientists and the general public that many processes of life are influenced by probabilities and uncertainties. 

The present book on Prions in Humans and Animals represents an important contribution to the comprehension of the concept outlined here. At the same time it informs the interested reader on the current state of prion research."

Werner Arber
Professor Emeritus of Molecular Microbiology at the Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland.

Editor's Note: In 1978, Professor Arber was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for his findings on restriction enzymes and their use in molecular genetics.