The interspecies transmission of scrapie is frequently associated with exceptionally long incubation periods at first passage in the new host compared to later passages (the species barrier effect). The basis of this was investigated using the 139A strain of scrapie which had been cloned by three serial passages in mice at limiting infectious doses. Cloned scrapie was passaged through hamsters (twice) or rats (thrice) and then reisolated in mice. Large species barrier effects were encountered on mouse-to-hamster and hamster-to-mouse passage resulting in the isolation of a mutant strain, 139-H/M, with properties very different from 139A. In contrast, the strain reisolated from rats was indistinguishable from 139A. However, a large species barrier was encountered at the mouse-to-rat passage but not at the rat-to-mouse passage. It is suggested that the transmission of scrapie between species may be associated with (i) no change in properties or (ii) a permanent change in the scrapie genome due to the selection of mutants. A third possibility, the donor species effect, is a temporary change occurring only at first passage in the new host species which is largely or entirely caused by the introduction of material from the previous host. We speculate that the donor species effect could be explained if some host protein forms a functional part of the infectious agent.

Keyword(s): mutation , pathogenesis and scrapie

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