Good News if You're a Cow

A friend of mine has expressed a certain horror about prions. I think I can understand that. To borrow and modify a phrase from physics, those who aren't frightened by prions don't understand them.

If you don't know what prions are, don't worry. I mean literally that. Maybe you don't want to know.

Anyway, today I came across the following item in New Scientist magazine (22 March 2003, Page 14):

Blocking BSE

The prion proteins that spread BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis a.k.a. Mad Cow Disease] in animal feed can be destroyed in 30 minutes by an enzyme extracted from actinomycete bacteria, say Japanese biochemists. Tatsuzo Oka of Kagoshima University says the enzyme could be used to sterilize animal feed to block transmission of prions to livestock.


In the same issue, on page 12, there's an article with the alarming title, "Flesh-eating Pests Unleashed". Apparently four million screw-worm flies that were supposed to have been rendered sterile were released. (They sterilize the flies so that when they go out on dates, they're shooting blanks. This means the lady flies are wasting their time and never learn the joys of motherhood.) The radioactive sterilization process had failed but this was not immediately noticed.

It sounds scary, but the article notes that screw-worm flies (which infect and munch upon open wounds, chiefly in cows but also sometimes in people just like you) have been eradicated from the U.S., Mexico and parts of Central America since this technique was developed in 1956.

So while the article seems to be bad news — actually, the infestation has been brought under control — it is, to my eye, actually good news hiding underneath a grim headline. I wasn't even aware of this multi-decade effort to eradicate this voracious pest, and that is was so successful!

I guess it's hard to get people excited about a 46-year-old story, but maybe it's something to mention when somebody says, "What has science ever done for us?"

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