Neurologist Valerie Sim and her research team at the University of Alberta said the findings might explain how prion diseases, such as chronic wasting disease and mad cow disease, adapt in order to spread between various types of animals.
The prions' makeup appears to give the disease the ability to adapt by mimicking and recreating new strains with which it comes into contact.
"Prion diseases don't always successfully go from one animal to another, but when they do, the process is called adaptation. And we want to figure out what triggers that process to happen, what changes happen within prions to allow the disease to spread," Sim said in a statement.
"One of the important things researchers in this field have realized is that if you pass certain strains of prion disease through a number of different hosts, the disease can adapt along the way and increase the number of susceptible hosts. That's the big concern right now."
The findings were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.