That the birnessite family of minerals possessed the capacity to degrade prions was a surprise, Pedersen says. Manganese oxides like birnessite are commonly used in such things as batteries and are among the most potent oxidants occurring naturally in soils, capable of chemically transforming a substance by adding oxygen atoms and stripping away electrons. The mineral is most abundant in soils that are seasonally waterlogged or poorly drained.
“A variety of manganese oxide minerals exist and one of the most common is birnessite. They are common in the sense that you find them in many soils, but in low concentrations,” says Pedersen. “They are among the strongest oxidants in soil.”
The new study, which was led by Fabio Russo of the University of Naples and Christopher J. Johnson of UW–Madison, was conducted on prions in solution in the laboratory. The group’s working hypothesis, according to Pedersen, is that the mineral oxidizes the prion, a chemical process that can be seen in things like iron oxidizing to form rust or how cut pears and apples turn brown when exposed to oxygen