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The 17-amino-acid N-terminal segment (httNT) that leads into the polyglutamine (polyQ) segment in the Huntington's disease protein huntingtin (htt) dramatically increases aggregation rates and changes the aggregation mechanism, compared to a simple polyQ peptide of similar length. With polyQ segments near or above the pathological repeat length threshold of about 37, aggregation of htt N-terminal fragments is so rapid that it is difficult to tease out mechanistic details. We describe here the use of very short polyQ repeat lengths in htt N-terminal fragments to slow this disease-associated aggregation. Although all of these peptides, in addition to httNT itself, form α-helix-rich oligomeric intermediates, only peptides with QN of eight or longer mature into amyloid-like aggregates, doing so by a slow increase in β-structure. Concentration-dependent circular dichroism and analytical ultracentrifugation suggest that the httNT sequence, with or without added glutamine residues, exists in solution as an equilibrium between disordered monomer and α-helical tetramer. Higher order, α-helix rich oligomers appear to be built up via these tetramers. However, only httNTQN peptides with N=8 or more undergo conversion into polyQ β-sheet aggregates. These final amyloid-like aggregates not only feature the expected high β-sheet content but also retain an element of solvent-exposed α-helix. The α-helix-rich oligomeric intermediates appear to be both on- and off-pathway, with some oligomers serving as the pool from within which nuclei emerge, while those that fail to undergo amyloid nucleation serve as a reservoir for release of monomers to support fibril elongation. Based on a regular pattern of multimers observed in analytical ultracentrifugation, and a concentration dependence of α-helix formation in CD spectroscopy, it is likely that these oligomers assemble via a four-helix assembly unit. PolyQ expansion in these peptides appears to enhance the rates of both oligomer formation and nucleation from within the oligomer population, by structural mechanisms that remain unclear. © 2011 Elsevier Ltd.

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Journal of Molecular Biology

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