Monday, January 24, 2011

Creature Feature: Prions.

Yesterday's zombie entry was the second time I had mentioned the strange little things called prions. If you have a good memory, you might remember that the first time I mentioned prions was the entry on human cannibalism. Surprise, surprise, kuru is a prion-triggered disease that comes from eating human brains. Or listening to too much Ke$ha.

Apparently Ke$ha advocates people getting kuru, now. Congrats: Your plot to have a hoard of drooling zombie slaves at your command worked.

Braaaiiins? Zombie is prion victim? The symptoms of prion-caused diseases (in this case, mad cow disease) include: 

"...rapidly progressive dementia, leading to memory loss, personality changes and hallucinations. This is accompanied by physical problems such as speech impairment, jerky movements (myoclonus), balance and coordination dysfunction (ataxia), changes in gait, rigid posture, and seizures." You tell me if this sounds like zombie behavior or not.

The most distinctive hint that an unknown disease might be caused by a prion is that, yes, they all attack the brain. Mad cow disease (which has a different name when spread to humans), kuru, and scrapies (the sheep version of mad cow) are all caused by prions. There are various ways to contract prion-based diseases, included eating affected neural matter. Several of them are also hereditary and nearly always lethal.

This is not salami. It is, however, headcheese.

Many prion-caused diseases have at least one name using the words "spongiform encephalopathy."  This is a fancy way of saying, "it turns a brain into Swiss cheese (or Spongebob)," which is what causes all of the quoted symptoms.

But what exactly are prions? The current theory is that prions are, or at least encourage the replication of, deformed proteins in the brain. An individual prion has as much DNA as a rubber stamp (i.e. none) and a similar function: To propagate its misshapen self onto an animal's brain cells. (Fungi get off just fine.)

Essentially, they're that wrench in the gears that shuts down the whole power plant. They are the one 0  that should have been a 1 in a computer program. They're that paper jam that happens the night you have a term paper due. Prions are that sort of simple, glitchy thing that makes everything go wrong.  Oh, and despite being inanimate, they can multiply like YouTube videos.

Prions are not alive, but they are capable of self-replication. They do not have DNA/RNA like viruses. They just act like a rubber stamp on other neural proteins. This makes scientists wonder what the hell nature was thinking. (Personally, we think she has just decided to flip humanity the bird and given us an enemy that we cannot attack without screwing ourselves over.) Unlike viruses, they are clearly not alive, but no less deadly.

She's going to be sent to the slaughterhouse...then Mickey D's. Think about that.

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. When scientists start making medicine that affects protein synthesis in the human body, I would be willing to bet 100 bucks that, for every ten lives saved with science's next miracle medicine, one person will become a crazed zombie thanks to that one protein that decided to be a douchebag in the office and order multiple photocopies of its rear end.

Tomorrow: Speaking of crack medicine, can Brazilian pit viper venom provide a cure for diabetes, or does it just make things worse?

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