Prions are transmissible agents that cause lethal neurodegeneration in humans and other mammals. Prions bind avidly to metal surfaces such as steel wires and, when surface-bound, can initiate infection of brain or cultured cells with remarkable efficiency. While investigating the properties of metal-bound prions by using the scrapie cell assay to measure infectivity, we observed, at low frequency, positive assay results in control groups in which metal wires had been coated with uninfected mouse brain homogenate. This phenomenon proved to be reproducible in rigorous and exhaustive control experiments designed to exclude prion contamination. The infectivity generated in cell culture could be readily transferred to mice and had strain characteristics distinct from the mouse-adapted prion strains used in the laboratory. The apparent "spontaneous generation" of prions from normal brain tissue could result if the metal surface, possibly with bound cofactors, catalyzed de novo formation of prions from normal cellular prion protein. Alternatively, if prions were naturally present in the brain at levels not detectable by conventional methods, metal surfaces might concentrate them to the extent that they become quantifiable by the scrapie cell assay.