Variation in amyloid structures profoundly influences a wide array of pathological phenotypes in mammalian protein conformation disorders and dominantly inherited phenotypes in yeast. Here, we describe, for the first time, naturally occurring, self-propagating, structural variants of a prion protein isolated from wild strains of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Variants of the [RNQ+] prion propagating in a variety of wild yeast differ biochemically, in their intracellular distributions, and in their ability to promote formation of the [PSI+] prion. [PSI+] is an epigenetic regulator of cellular phenotype and adaptability. Strikingly, we find that most natural [RNQ+] variants induced [PSI+] at high frequencies and the majority of [PSI+] variants elicited strong cellular phenotypes. We hypothesize that the presence of an efficient [RNQ+] template primes the cell for [PSI+] formation in order to induce [PSI+] in conditions where it would be advantageous. These studies utilize naturally occurring structural variants to expand our understanding of the consequences of diverse prion conformations on cellular phenotypes. © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.