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Scientists have shown for the first time that "lifeless" prion proteins, devoid of all genetic material, can evolve just like higher forms of life.
The Scripps Research Institute in the US says the prions can change to suit their environment and go on to develop drug resistance.
Prions are associated with 20 different brain diseases in humans and animals.
"...stop abnormal prions being transmitted to humans through the food system or through blood transfusions..."
"This is a timely reminder that prion concerns are not going away and that controls to stop abnormal prions being transmitted to humans through the food system or through blood transfusions must be vigorously maintained."
"The proof of the quasi-species concept is a discovery we made over 30 years ago," he said. "We found that an RNA virus population, which was thought to have only one sequence, was constantly creating mutations and eliminating the unfavorable ones.
In these quasi-populations, much like we have now found in prions, you begin with a single particle, but it becomes very heterogeneous as it grows into a larger population.
There are some unknown dynamics at work in the prion population that leads to this increased heterogeneity, Weissmann added, that still need to be explored. "It's amusing that something we did 30 years has come back to us," he said. "But we know that mutation and natural selection occur in living organisms and now we know that they also occur in a non-living organism. I suppose anything that can't do that wouldn't stand much of a chance of survival."