Origin of metastable oligomers and their effects on amyloid fibril self-assembly
Assembly of rigid amyloid fibrils with their characteristic cross-β sheet structure is a molecular signature of numerous neurodegenerative and non-neuropathic disorders. Frequently large populations of small globular amyloid oligomers (gOs) and curvilinear fibrils (CFs) precede the formation of late-stage rigid fibrils (RFs), and have been implicated in amyloid toxicity. Yet our understanding of the origin of these metastable oligomers, their role as on-pathway precursors or off-pathway competitors, and their effects on the self-assembly of amyloid fibrils remains incomplete. Using two unrelated amyloid proteins, amyloid-β and lysozyme, we find that gO/CF formation, analogous to micelle formation by surfactants, is delineated by a “critical oligomer concentration” (COC). Below this COC, fibril assembly replicates the sigmoidal kinetics of nucleated polymerization. Upon crossing the COC, assembly kinetics becomes biphasic with gO/CF formation responsible for the lag-free initial phase, followed by a second upswing dominated by RF nucleation and growth. RF lag periods below the COC, as expected, decrease as a power law in monomer concentration. Surprisingly, the build-up of gO/CFs above the COC causes a progressive increase in RF lag periods. Our results suggest that metastable gO/CFs are off-pathway from RF formation, confined by a condition-dependent COC that is distinct from RF solubility, underlie a transition from sigmoidal to biphasic assembly kinetics and, most importantly, not only compete with RFs for the shared monomeric growth substrate but actively inhibit their nucleation and growth.