More than a million cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) may have entered the human food chain. Fears that BSE might transmit to man were raised when atypical cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a human transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), emerged in the UK. In BSE and other TSE diseases, the conversion of the protease- sensitive host prion protein (PrP-sen) to a protease-resistant isoform (PrPres) is an important event in pathogenesis. Biological aspects of TSE diseases are reflected in the specificities of in vitro PrP conversion reactions. Here we show that there is a correlation between in vitro conversion efficiencies and known transmissibilities of BSE, sheep scrapie and CJD. On this basis, we used an in vitro system to gauge the potential transmissibility of scrapie and BSE to humans. We found limited conversion of human PrP-sen to PrP-res driven by PrP-res associated with both scrapie (PrP(Sc)) and BSE (Prp(BSE)). The efficiencies of these heterologous conversion reactions were similar but much lower than those of relevant homologous conversions. Thus the inherent ability of these infectious agents of BSE and scrapie to affect humans following equivalent exposure may be finite but similarly low.