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Microbial forensics: the science behind the Amerithrax investigation

Nearly a decade after the postal anthrax attacks in the USA that killed 5 individuals and infected more than 20 people, scientists have revealed the measures used to trace the Bacillus anthracis strain used in the bioterror attack in a new paper available online for free from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A groundbreaking mix of genomics and microbiology were used as part of the criminal investigation  into the 2001 anthrax attacks (called Amerithrax); microbial forensics proved key to identifying the exact flask from which the anthrax spores were taken.

Rasko and colleagues used highly accurate whole-genome sequencing and comparative genomics (against the B. anthracis Ames ancestor, believed to be the progenitor of all Ames lab samples and used as a gold standard reference strain in the USA) to determine the source strain of B. anthracis used in the letter attacks. First, the scientists took spore samples from some of the letters and grew them in the lab. A number of morphological variants were observed in these letter-isolated bacterial samples (yellow or yellow–grey coloured rather than the usual grey–white of wild-type anthrax colonies) and all had diminished abilities to sporulate. These variants were then sequenced and compared with genomes sequences of the gold standard Ames ancestor to identify four distinct loci with genetic mutations (three of which were in B. anthracis sporulation pathways, specifically regulation of a key protein, Spo0F) in the morpholigical variants—features unique to the isolated anthrax variants. None of these variants were found to be prevalent in the environment (even in the areas associated with the Amerithrax investigation).

Ultimately, using comparisons with genomes of repository anthrax sources, the anthrax spores used to lace the letters were found to have a unique genetic fingerprint; anthrax batches were eventually traced back to a source flask (RMR-1029) in the lab of Dr Bruce Ivins (a key suspect in the subsequent criminal investigation who later committed suicide before a criminal case could be brought to trial).

The study authors conclude that the B. anthracis bioterror attack investigations “taught us important lessons about the integration of whole-genome sequencing for forensic applications”, although they do concede that their methods might not applicable to other bioterror agents.

ResearchBlogging.orgRasko, D., Worsham, P., Abshire, T., Stanley, S., Bannan, J., Wilson, M., Langham, R., Decker, R., Jiang, L., Read, T., Phillippy, A., Salzberg, S., Pop, M., Van Ert, M., Kenefic, L., Keim, P., Fraser-Liggett, C., & Ravel, J. (2011). Bacillus anthracis comparative genome analysis in support of the Amerithrax investigation Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016657108

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Filed under Genome sequence, Microbiology