Explaining the length threshold of polyglutamine aggregation
The existence of a length threshold, of about 35 residues, above which polyglutamine repeats can give rise to aggregation and to pathologies, is one of the hallmarks of polyglutamine neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's disease. The reason why such a minimal length exists at all has remained one of the main open issues in research on the molecular origins of such classes of diseases. Following the seminal proposals of Perutz, most research has focused on the hunt for a special structure, attainable only above the minimal length, able to trigger aggregation. Such a structure has remained elusive and there is growing evidence that it might not exist at all. Here we review some basic polymer and statistical physics facts and show that the existence of a threshold is compatible with the modulation that the repeat length imposes on the association and dissociation rates of polyglutamine polypeptides to and from oligomers. In particular, their dramatically different functional dependence on the length rationalizes the very presence of a threshold and hints at the cellular processes that might be at play, in vivo, to prevent aggregation and the consequent onset of the disease.