Deadly feasts: tracking the secrets of a terrifying new plague, by Richard Rhodes, is one scary book. It tracks the discovery of prions, the mishapen proteins responsible for mad cow disease, scrapie, and Creutzfeldt Jacob disease. Following human cannibals in the jungles of New Guinea in the fifties, bovine cannibals of the British Isles in the eighties, and the bizarre history of sheep scrapie from the 17th century on, Rhodes does a great job of presenting the history and discovery of this bizarre group of diseases. I especially enjoyed the characterizations of the scientists, from the Noble Laureate who so enjoyed the New Guinea that he often regretted rejoining civiliziation, yet brought thirty natives back to the USA and helped them through school, to the hyper-competitive scientist who named the molecules even though he wasn’t quite certain what they were.
But this isn’t just a story of scientific discovery. As the foreboding subtitle blares, Rhodes explores some of the scarier aspects of prions. These include spontaneous formation, responsible for the known early cases of Creutzfeldt Jacob disease, trans-species infection, including mad cow disease and scrapie, the long long incubation period and lack of immune system response, and hardiness of the disease. One scary factoid: a scientist took a sample of scrapie, froze it, baked it for an hour at 360 degrees (celsius), and was able to re-infect other animals from this sample.
For all the uneasiness this book inspires, it certainly doesn’t offer any answers. A condemnation of industrial agriculture, a warning that it’s unknown whether vegetarians are even safe, and a caution against using bone meal for your flower garden do not make a recipe for handling this issue. To be fair, it was printed in 1997–perhaps things are under control now.