Researchers found that infectious prions populations erased from elk suffering from chronic wasting disease, when concentrations of humic acid were applied to diseased elk brain tissue.

An acid found in rich humus soil breaks down the misfolded brain proteins, also called as prions, which mainly causes chronic wasting disease. The researcher found that chemical signatures of the infectious prions declined when humic acid was applied to affected areas. The findings were published in the journal PLOS Pathogens on November 29, 2018.

“This suggests that the acid somehow degrades the warped protein, making it less infectious, and that environmental sources of infectivity play a role in transmission of these diseases,” says Judd Aiken, a prion disease researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

Chronic wasting disease is a neurodegenerative disease, which has caused major deaths in the populations of deer, elk, and moose across parts of North America, South Korea, Sweden, and Norway. The twisted protein thrives in the rotting carcasses, feces, or saliva of infected animals, and eventually seeps into soils. The animals get infected when it graze in prion-contaminated areas.

Prions are a malformed version of proteins, which is capable to change and take the shape of normal proteins of the same kind that harms the nerve cells. It can bind microscopic minerals such as quartz, kaolinite and montmorillonite, and can — as lab tests have revealed — stay locked in soil for years. Infected animals become listless, disoriented, and unable to chew its food or drink water for months until death.

The researchers tested the soil samples for humic acid presence throughout western Canada and concluded a significant reduction in prion signatures were evident in humus presence.