Scientists from the University of Alberta say they have discovered a property in soil that could potentially help reduce the spread of chronic wasting disease.
While they aren’t exactly sure how the soil property, known as humic acid, is reducing the infection, their research shows it is able to break down the abnormal protein that causes the disease.
“What is in the humic acid and what the mechanisms are to break it down, we don’t know,” said Judd Aiken, who helped with the research and is a professor in the faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences at the university.
“But we do know there is something reducing those abnormal proteins.”
Chronic wasting disease affects and kills cervids such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, elk and reindeer, and can be spread from one animal to another through contact in the environment.
The disease is having major impacts on deer populations in Wyoming, Wisconsin and Colorado, Aiken said, and has been gaining prevalence on the Canadian Prairies.
He said while the research findings don’t indicate they’ve solved the problem, they could at least put scientists on the right track.
“Something in the environment that is reducing the disease is a good thing, but the challenge will be dealing with something that persists in the environment and is spread across a large area,” he said.
To get their findings, Aiken said the research team began by initially purifying humic acid from Alberta soils. They then added the humic acid to the infectious agents and found it could reduce abnormal proteins and its infectivity.
However, Aiken pointed out that soil is complex. Even though humic acid might be breaking the disease down, there are other properties in soil that are likely working to spread it.
“Soils are exceedingly complex and I think we need to sort this out by working with individual components,” he said.
The next steps for researchers are to determine what in humic acid is reducing the infection and how it’s doing it.
“This is a disease that demands an answer soon,” Aiken said. “We’re not there yet.”
While there is no evidence the disease can be transmitted to humans, Health Canada recommends people avoid consuming meat from infected animals.
If an animal is killed in a zone where the disease is present, it’s requested that people submit its head to inspection agencies.
To reduce the spread of the disease, people should wear gloves when field dressing animals, treat knives and other equipment with 50 percent bleach, wash off fecal matter on footwear when in affected areas and have deer tested before the meat is eaten.