The amyloid plaque, consisting of amyloid β-peptide (Aβ) fibrils surrounded by dystrophic neurites, is an invariable feature of Alzheimer's disease. The determination of the molecular structure of Aβ fibrils is a significant goal that may lead to the structure-based design of effective therapeutics for Alzheimer's disease. Technical challenges have thus far rendered this goal impossible. In the present study, we develop an alternative methodology. Rather than determining the structure directly, we design conformationally constrained peptides and demonstrate that only certain ‘bricks’ can aggregate into fibrils morphologically identical to Aβ fibrils. The designed peptides include variants of a decapeptide fragment of Aβ, previously shown to be one of the smallest peptides that (1) includes a pentapeptide sequence necessary for Aβ—Aβ binding and aggregation and (2) can form fibrils indistinguishable from those formed by full-length Aβ. The secondary structure of these bricks is monitored by CD spectroscopy, and electron microscopy is used to study the morphology of the aggregates formed. We then made various residue deletions and substitutions to determine which structural features are essential for fibril formation. From the constraints, statistical analysis of side-chain pair correlations in β-sheets and experimental data, we deduce a detailed model of the peptide strand alignment in fibrils formed by these bricks. Our results show that the constrained decapeptide dimers rapidly form an intramolecular, antiparallel β-sheet and polymerize into amyloid fibrils at low concentrations. We suggest that the formation of an exposed β-sheet (e.g. an Aβ dimer formed by interaction in the decapeptide region) could be a rate-limiting step in fibril formation. A theoretical framework that explains the results is presented in parallel with the data.

Abbreviations used: Aβ, amyloid β-peptide; APP, amyloid precursor protein; EM, electron microscopy; TFE, trifluoroethanol; 26SS, CHQKLVFFAEDYNGKHQKLVFFAEDC; 28SS, CHQKLVFFAEDDYNGKHQKLVFFAEDSC.

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