Soil is to blame for fatal syndrome affecting deer in Canada

Updated: December 13, 2018

two-deer-in-winter Photo by Jim Cumming/Shutterstock

Researchers from the University of Alberta may have discovered a tool to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD), an incurable, fatal illness that affects members of the deer family, including white-tailed deer, moose, elk and reindeer.

CWD, which has been detected in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Quebec, is caused by abnormally-shaped proteins called prions that distort the normal proteins found in an animal’s brain and nervous system. The university’s researchers have learned that acids in humus, the dark organic soil made from decomposed plants and animals, may break down the infectious proteins.

Because proteins are the building blocks that allow cells to work properly, the disease has serious consequences for deer and their relatives. CWD is always fatal, with no cure or vaccine, and infected animals may or may not display symptoms before succumbing to the disease.

Infected animals that do display symptoms may lose weight and become sluggish, confused, and uncoordinated. The disease is of particular concern to hunters and farmers that interact with members of the deer family. While there is no evidence that CWD can be transmitted to people, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recommends that contaminated meat should not be used or eaten.

The infectious prions of CWD can move directly from animal to animal through saliva and feces, but another source of infection is through the environment itself, as prions can linger in soils for years and infect grazing animals. If scientists can identify the types of soils that hinder prions from lurking in the environment, the information could be used to identify areas that put deer and their relatives at greater risk for CWD infection.

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