Lichens protect against prion plague

Alaska could become the future battleground between caribou and their proteins, if a nasty Lower 48 deer disease makes its way up here. On the side of caribou, and fully-sterilized surgeries everywhere: lichens.

A new rung has been added to the ladder of diseases, in order of decreasing complexity: fungi, bacteria, viruses, viroids (plants only) and …. prions. Prions are proteins bent in just the wrong way. They have the Midas curse of infectiously transforming healthy proteins into new prions.

Prions impact humans, animals and lichens (but we’ll get back to that later). Most notably, prions cause mad cow disease.

As soon as mad cow was linked to prions, these curious false proteins have gone up and up in popularity. I admittedly heard about them in reference to zombies (which may come up occasionally on Boreal Bites, if you haven’t noticed).

You can see this popularity using a nifty tool called Google Trends – news references on the bottom, searches on top.

There’s another prion affliction in deer and elk known as chronic wasting disease. In Fairbanks, we don’t have deer – but we do have moose and caribou. Moose are already known to get chronic wasting disease. University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist George Happ found that caribou, too, are similar enough to elk to be susceptible to chronic wasting disease. So far, there haven’t been any instances of the disease in Alaska. There’s not much chance of eradicating it if it does arrive.

Prions can’t be destroyed like other diseases. They don’t succumb to the limitations of living things. They don’t go away when their host dies. They can jump species if the original proteins are similar enough. They can’t be destroyed by the universal surgical and scientific sterilizer, the autoclave.

Some species of lichen near Finger Mountain August 2011 -- not the particular lichens used in the prion study.

Enter lichens.

Jennifer Frazer over at the blog Artful Amoeba splendidly summarized the unlikely relationship between lichens and prions.

In short, lichens have long battled prions, and many types of lichen came up with some sort of defense against them.

The fascinating, nail-biting aspect of Alaska is not only that we have caribou that could be susceptible to prions. It’s not that we have an extremely diverse selection of lichens that battle prions, and battle them well. It’s that caribou eat lichens.

Imagine chronic wasting disease comes to Alaska. Could lichen in caribou systems keep prions at bay, preventing a future species jump like that between sheep and cattle?

I’ll leaving that an open-ended question, because that’s where my Google powers sputter out. Either I’m missing a piece of the puzzle – what caribou eat has nothing to do with sterilizing their nervous system, perhaps – or this just hasn’t come up in research before.

I love prions and lichens (caribou are pretty cool, too), so if you know any more information on the topic, a thousand kudos from me if you shed some light on the matter.

Until then, another point to lichen for being the most important lifeforms you’ve never encountered in your schoolwork.

As if that weren’t already obvious.

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