Scientists unearth soil property that combats chronic wasting disease

Research: News Roundup from the February 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Closeup of a plowed field, fertile, black soil.

University of Alberta scientists have found that naturally occurring soil compounds can reduce chronic wasting disease in the environment.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is within the same family as BSE and is fatal to mule and white-tail deer, moose, caribou and elk. Infected animals can contaminate soil through urine, feces and saliva. Decaying carcasses also infect soil. As healthy animals come into contact with the soil, they too can become infected.

But while studying soil components, researchers discovered that humic acids, created by decaying plant material, can help eliminate CWD.

“Anything that reduces CWD infectivity is significant,” said Judd Aiken, senior author of the study, in a release. “Previous studies have shown that certain soil minerals can enhance infectivity, leaving the environment infectious for longer. These findings identify a different, organic component of soil with the opposite effect, reducing infectivity.”

The research team, which also included Debbie McKenzie, Alsu Kuz­netsova and Catherine Cullingham, exposed mice to material that incorporated prions from infected elk or white-tailed deer. Some of that material also included humic acids at varying levels. All of the humic acids were at concentrations that would be naturally found in the soil. Other mice were exposed to a control material that didn’t include prions or humic acids. Researchers found a clear decline in chronic wasting disease infections when the material included higher concentrations of humic acids.

In an email, Aiken said that so far they haven’t looked at how humic acids affect BSE prions, but it’s worth doing.

“I don’t, however, anticipate BSE prions to behave differently. We have examined CWD prions (deer), CWD prions (elk) and hamster-adapted TME. Humic acid affects all three similarly,” he added.

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