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PLoS Pathog. 2006 Apr;2(4):e32. Epub 2006 Apr 14.

Prions adhere to soil minerals and remain infectious.

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Program in Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Wisconsin Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, United States of America.


An unidentified environmental reservoir of infectivity contributes to the natural transmission of prion diseases (transmissible spongiform encephalopathies [TSEs]) in sheep, deer, and elk. Prion infectivity may enter soil environments via shedding from diseased animals and decomposition of infected carcasses. Burial of TSE-infected cattle, sheep, and deer as a means of disposal has resulted in unintentional introduction of prions into subsurface environments. We examined the potential for soil to serve as a TSE reservoir by studying the interaction of the disease-associated prion protein (PrP(Sc)) with common soil minerals. In this study, we demonstrated substantial PrP(Sc) adsorption to two clay minerals, quartz, and four whole soil samples. We quantified the PrP(Sc)-binding capacities of each mineral. Furthermore, we observed that PrP(Sc) desorbed from montmorillonite clay was cleaved at an N-terminal site and the interaction between PrP(Sc) and Mte was strong, making desorption of the protein difficult. Despite cleavage and avid binding, PrP(Sc) bound to Mte remained infectious. Results from our study suggest that PrP(Sc) released into soil environments may be preserved in a bioavailable form, perpetuating prion disease epizootics and exposing other species to the infectious agent.

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