Prions are infectious proteins that result in slow degeneration of the brain leading to loss of function of the most critical organ in the human body. They are passed from one organism to another by eating the flesh of an infected individual, animal or human. Cooking does not destroy the infectious activity. The normal means of sterilizing medical instruments does not destroy these proteins nor does it render them inactive. Burying infected animals results in normal decay of the flesh but does not destroy the infectious prions, at least not for years. Growing evidence implicates prions or prion-like activity in a number of slow neurodegenerative diseases.

The course will explore what prions are, how they can replicate themselves without DNA or other genetic material, and how they can be transmitted from one organism to another. We will also examine the various forms of established prion disease and diseases where the role of prion-like proteins is more controversial(e.g. Alzheimer’s). Established prion diseases occur in sheep, goats, mink, elk, deer, cattle, cats, nyala, and humans. Further we will examine how former and some current practices in the agricultural and recycling/composting industry may favor the transmission of prions. For example, the agricultural practices that resulted in the explosion of Mad Cow Disease in the UK in the mid to late 1980’s resulted in the death of 180,000 cows and 150 people. In addition 5 million more cattle were killed as a precautionary measure. In most fields of study there are minority views that from time to time turn out to be correct. Therefore we will explore some of these alternatives including the evidence that the infectious nature of prions arises from extremely small viruses.

The course will require a great deal of student participation in the form of in-class discussions and student presentations. It is expected that most students will NOT be life science majors and thus appropriate background information will be provided by the instructor so that students can appreciate the science behind the observations. The emphasis will be on rational thought and understanding of the origin of the disease, the factors that favor transmission, and the cost/benefit balance of safety vs. prosperity.