Are lichens the silver bullet against CWD?
It was reported several weeks ago that one or more of the
organisms in lichens are able to produce a substance that can
degrade prion proteins, the molecules responsible for causing fatal
brain diseases in cervids.
The research should awaken us to the significance of basic
research, science that studies organisms and processes simply to
find out what they are and how they fit into the environment. Basic
research is not usually directed toward practical applications, as
least not at first.
But without the underpinning of basic research, most applied
research would be dead in the water, or at least have to back track
before moving ahead.
In the past, some basic research has been the brunt of jokes
because it seemed senseless studying a bug, plant, fungus, or, in
this case, a lichen.
Why would anyone want to travel to Alaska or Canada, fight
through clouds of hungry insects, just to study lichens? The
answer: because lichens are there and to better understand the
world, we should better understand the lichens.
So, here we are today, relying on a century or more of
lichenologists putting descriptions and names to these assemblages
of green algae, bacteria and fungi that are living together as a
The bulk of what most of us knew about lichens, until recently,
was a clothing dye or reindeer moss. And of course complaints about
lichens on tombstones, roofs and tree bark.
Lichens occur naturally throughout the world, including the
Midwest, but just how these extracts they produce degrade rogue
prion proteins – and which organism produces the substance – is now
at the forefront of research in several laboratories.
Whether or not these extracts might someday be used to sterilize
surgical instruments or neutralize soil in a game farm pasture, are
in the distant future.
Until now, prion-caused diseases, such as chronic wasting
disease, have been extremely difficult for scientists to manage,
and even more difficult for the general public to understand. This
is a disease that is not caused by a parasitic organism, such as a
bacterium, fungus or animal. Its causal factor is a protein
Lichens are confusing. They are not organisms, but an assemblage
of bacteria, algae, fungi and cyanobacteria, living as tiny
communities. Even so, scientists long ago determined the best way
to begin to understand them is to put a scientific name to this
tiny mutualistic community that thrives while living in some of the
most inhospitable locations.
Even though most lichens are eaten as a last resort, caribou eat
them in great abundance, so much so that reindeer moss is the
common name of one lichen.
Will we see a tiny portion of the former Hall Game Farm in
Portage County “seeded” with lichens to test whether the soil can
be decontaminated of prions? Or will hospitals use lichen extract
to cleanse surgical tools?
It’s a sure bet, too, that someone will study caribou, also a
cervid, that lives on lichens.
Maybe scientists are a tiny step closer to finding a casing for
a long-awaited silver bullet.