Researchers at the University of Texas Health (UTH) Science Center at Houston have been observing the interactions between proteinaceous prions (a group of protein rich infectious agents) and leafy green plants as a method of studying the mode of transmission of a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.
Lead authors of this study, Claudio Soto, Ph.D., professor of neurology at UTHealth Medical School and director of the UTHealth George and Cynthia W. Mitchell Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Brain Related Illnesses, along with their teams of researchers have been researching the mode of transmission of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, as they belong to a category of brain disorders that have incubation periods spanning years. In addition, some of these diseases have been endemic in specific areas of the United States, the reason for which is yet to be determined.
The main conditions involved include bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in cattle, scrapie in sheep, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans and chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer, elk and moose. As a part of their experimental study, the researchers incubated the protein-rich prion affected brain material with wheat grass and roots. When hamsters were fed with these infected plants, they also developed the disease. The team also observed that exposure to feces and urine from contaminated animals made the plants retain these prions, which later function as carriers.
One conclusion from this study was that plants act as carriers and transmit the disease horizontally to animals. It could be a possibility that humans who feed on infected animal flesh catch the disease as well. According to instructions from the CDC, in order to minimize the risk of exposure to CWD, people should avoid eating meat from deer and elk that appear to be sick or tests positive for CWD. Hunters who field-dress deer in an affected area should wear gloves and minimize handling of the brain and spinal cord tissues.
This entire study was just an experimental setup, and further research needs to be done to trace the exact path of disease transfer from plants to humans, or even zoonosis.