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Study shows prions stick around in certain soils

MADISON - Dirt may help scientists answer a question that has baffled them for decades: How does chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer and elk spread from animal to animal?

By turning to the land, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers show that prions - infectious proteins considered to be at the root of the disease - literally stick to some soil types, suggesting that the landscape may serve as an environmental reservoir for the disease.

The findings will be discussed during a poster presentation on Wednesday, Sept. 10, in New York City at the 226th national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Extraordinarily resistant to a range of environmental conditions and decontamination measures, prions are abnormally folded proteins that can make an animal's brain as holey as a sponge. They've been implicated as the cause of diseases such as mad cow and scrapie in sheep.

Once infected, deer and elk, for example, experience a number of neurological and behavioral problems - staggering, shaking and excessive salivation, thirst and urination - until they waste away, many times dying in fields or woods. The disease is always fatal, and, to date, there is no cure.

Even though chronic wasting disease was first detected in free-ranging deer and elk in Colorado and Wyoming during the mid-1980s, it received a charge in scientific and public interest in February 2002, when the first evidence of the disease in Wisconsin appeared.

"The route by which CWD is transmitted from animal to animal is not understood," says Joel Pedersen, an environmental chemist and lead investigator on the soil study. "Strong circumstantial evidence suggests an environmental reservoir exists." Reports show, for instance, that healthy elk placed in pens where animals infected with CWD had once lived developed the fatal disease.

With funding from a recently awarded five-year, $2.4 million grant from the Department of Defense's National Prion
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Contact: Joel Pedersen
joelpedersen@wisc.edu
608-263-4971
University of Wisconsin-Madison
10-Sep-2003


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