Scrapie is a transmissible degenerative disease of the central nervous system occurring naturally in sheep. It belongs to the group of prion diseases also affecting man in which an abnormal isoform of the host-encoded prion protein (PrP) accumulating in the brain is responsible for neuronal death. Three main polymorphisms have been described in the sheep PrP gene, at positions 136, 154 and 171. A strong association between susceptibility/resistance to natural scrapie and a dimorphism at codon 136 of the ovine PrP gene has been reported in several breeds, including Romanov. This dimorphism, however, is not found in all scrapie-affected breeds. We have compared the PrP genotypes of Lacaune sheep obtained from enzootically affected flocks with those of apparently healthy sheep. A third variant at codon 171 was also evidenced. The results were compared with those obtained in a single experimental Romanov flock orally challenged with nematode parasites in which scrapie suddenly appeared and killed 80% of the sheep. We present evidence that, even in different epizootological circumstances, the major genetic factor controlling the susceptibility/resistance to natural scrapie in sheep, is represented by codon 171 genotype of the PrP gene. We also suggest that a modification of the allelic effects of codon 136 can occur in heavily infected animals.


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