Scientists have shown for the first time that "lifeless" prion proteins, devoid of all genetic material, can evolve just like higher forms of life.
The Scripps Research Institute in the US says the prions can change to suit their environment and go on to develop drug resistance.
Prions are associated with 20 different brain diseases in humans and animals. The scientists say their work suggests new approaches might be necessary to develop therapies for these diseases.
In the study, published in the journal Science, the scientists transferred prion populations from brain cells to other cells in culture and observed the prions that adapted to the new cellular environment out-competed their brain-adapted counterparts. When returned to the brain cells, the brain-adapted prions again took over the population.
Charles Weissmann, head of Scripps Florida's department of infectology who led the study, said: "On the face of it, you have exactly the same process of mutation and adaptive change in prions as you see in viruses. This means that this pattern of Darwinian evolution appears to be universally active. In viruses, mutation is linked to changes in nucleic acid sequence that leads to resistance. Now, this adaptability has moved one level down- to prions and protein folding - and it's clear that you do not need nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) for the process of evolution."