A disease that has mangled the hooves of elk in western Washington and other parts of the country is affecting more than just the animals’ feet, according to a new study from Washington State University.
Michael Skinner, a molecular biologist at Washington State University and one of the authors of the study published last month in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that treponeme-associated hoof disease, or TAHD, is causing systemic molecular changes throughout the animal.
Scientists examined knee tendons from elk to look for changes in its epigenetics – molecular factors that regulate gene activity. The analysis found significant epigenetic changes in samples from animals that had TAHD.
“It’s a much more broad effect on the elk than just its hoof,” Skinner said.
The study was the first of its kind for the disease, which only affects elk. It also notes that it’s possible the alterations are passed down through generations, and that it could mean mutations that make an animal more or less likely to catch TAHD are being passed to newborn elk.
The disease is particularly common in the elk herd near Mount St. Helens – roughly 25% of hunters who submit reports on elk killed there report hoof abnormalities.
Margaret Wild, a [micro]biologist at WSU and one of the other authors of the study, is leading a team of researchers looking at the disease. They have spent the past several years building out their baseline knowledge, from how it infects elk to how it spreads to what it does to the animals.
“Right now, we just have all these pieces of a puzzle and we’re trying to put them together,” Wild said. “The more pieces of the puzzle come in, the more clear a picture we’ll have.”
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