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"Mad Cow" Type Prions Found in Plants

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Mad Cow Disease page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

Prions are misshapen infectious proteins that cause a number of fatal diseases including mad cow disease, characterized by holes in the brain. The US deer and elk herd is infected with another prion illness, Chronic Wasting Disease. Ron Seely from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism tells host Steve Curwood that prions persist in soil and new research shows that plants can absorb them as well.


CURWOOD: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. That's the scientific name for Mad Cow disease, which is caused by infectious proteins or prions that create holes in the brain. This incurable disease very rarely infects humans who eat the tainted beef, but it set off panic nearly two decades ago when it was widespread in British cattle.

In North America, a similar illness to Mad Cow disease, called Chronic Wasting Disease, has been on the rise in moose, elk and deer. And now research by the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin has found the prions associated with Chronic Wasting can actually be absorbed by plants, and persist in their leaves and stems, posing potential threats to people and animals that eat the plants. Ron Seely is a journalist with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, who's been reporting on prions for more than a decade.  

SEELY: They're basically misshapen proteins that are capable of infecting neural tissue and brain tissue. The way they work is they transform healthy proteins into misshapen proteins, the disease proteins. There are different kinds of prion disease and the one people are probably most familiar with is Mad Cow disease in cattle. The one we're talking about here is Chronic Wasting Disease in deer, elk and moose. But these prions will build up and continue this transformation in the brain and basically destroy the brain. The brain becomes filled with these gaps and holes where these prions destroy healthy proteins, and it is a fatal illness, a pretty terrifying illness.

CURWOOD: Where in the US are they finding diseased animals?

SEELY: It's been found across the country, from western states to Pennsylvania and New York. It's in...the latest CDC numbers show it in 17 states. The health lab believes it's in about 20. The biggest concentration is in the western states - Wyoming, Montana, Colorado. So it is a nationwide problem.