The infectious agent of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies is thought to be a cellular protein, the prion protein, which undergoes, under some circumstances, a dramatic conformational change leading to pathogenesis. The conversion between the normal and pathogenic isoforms corresponds to a autocatalytic mechanism and the metabolism of the prion protein exhibits switches between a normal, stable steady state and a pathogenic one. When the disease can be transmitted between two species, a primary infection from a heterologous donor has to be followed by two passages in the same host species so that the incubation period is stabilized. Sometimes, no pathogenic isoform of the prion protein is detected after the first passage, although corresponding brain extracts remain infectious. The observation that three and only three passages are needed in order to stabilize the strain strongly suggests that, during the course of the primary infection by the heterologous donor, an intermediary conformational species is formed. Within this assumption, a common mechanism involving only conformational changes of the prion protein can give a unifying interpretation of the problem of species barrier, lag characteristics and apparent lack of detection of the pathogenic isoform after the first passage in experiments dealing with interspecies transmission of prion diseases.