MADISON In the rogues' gallery of microscopic infectious agents, the prion is the toughest hombre in town.
Warped pathogens that lack both DNA and RNA, prions are believed to cause such fatal brain ailments as chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer and moose, mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. In addition to being perhaps the weirdest infectious agent know to science, the prion is also the most durable. It resists almost every method of destruction from fire and ionizing radiation to chemical disinfectants and autoclaving, which reduce prion infectivity but fail to completely eliminate it.
Now, however, a team of Wisconsin researchers has found that a common soil mineral, an oxidized from of manganese known as birnessite, can penetrate the prion's armor and degrade the protein.
The new finding, which was reported earlier this month (Jan. 2) in the Journal of General Virology, is important because it may yield ways to decontaminate soil and other environments where prions reside.
"Prions are resistant to many of the conventional means of inactivating pathogens," says Joel Pedersen, a University of Wisconsin-Madison environmental chemist and the senior author of the new study. For example, autoclaving, a standard method for sterilization in the laboratory, will reduce the concentration of prions in solution, but fails to eliminate them altogether, as it does for virtually all other types of pathogens.
Because prions infect both wild and domesticated animals, the agent can contaminate barnyards and other areas where infected livestock are kept, as well as persist in natural environments where deer, elk and other animals can become infected by contact with contaminated soil.
Other studies have shown that prions can survive in the soil for at least three years, and that soil is a plausible route of transmission for some animals, Pedersen says. "We know that environmental contamination o
|Contact: Joel Pedersen|
University of Wisconsin-Madison