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Of Mad Cows, Cannibals, and New Life Forms

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This is where things get really interesting. Every living thing has DNA and RNA. Even viruses, the smallest known living things, have at least one of the two, since these acids form the genes that are essential to creating and fostering life on this planet. Scientists fried the infectious agent using ultraviolet rays and ionizing radiation -- in effect destroying the DNA and RNA. The infectious agent survived.

Imagine an astronomer willing to consider that the Earth has two moons. It was about as heretical for a biologist to consider that there may be a life form with no genes. But that was what the evidence indicated, and so, in the best traditions of science, researchers slogged away for a further 15 years and finally identified the infectious agent -- a protein, nothing more or less. Scientists subjected this protein to several more years of the third degree using enzymes, heat, and all the other techniques that protein detectives use to interrogate their suspects.

Today, nearly a hundred years after the initial reports, we know what this protein, called a prion, looks like. We also know that it may replicate like a virus by borrowing the equipment it needs from the host. We do not know if this can be called a new life form or not -- that may end up being a debate between scientists and philosophers.

Whether or not we can find a cure for this cause of "mad cow disease" is, however, not a matter for debate. We will, eventually -- just look at the people going after it.

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