How Scientists Identified Anthrax Strain in 2001 Letter Attacks

It took nearly a decade before University of Maryland researchers were allowed to talk about their work identifying the anthrax strain used in the 2001 deadly letter attacks. But now, they and the other key members of the high-powered science team have published the first account of the pioneering work, which launched the new field of "microbial forensics" and gave bioterrorism investigators a way to "fingerprint" bacteria. An article published online on March 7, 2011, in PNAS details the multi-institutional research that the FBI ultimately used to track anthrax-laden letters back to test tube number RMR-1029 at a lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland. University of Maryland bioinformatics experts co-authored the article and conducted the computational analysis that detected four genetic mutations that together comprised a unique signature of a particular colony of anthrax bacteria. The FBI subsequently determined this colony was found only in that Ft. Detrick test tube. The Maryland researchers have since developed their work into a genetic 'fingerprinting' tool that is available online to law enforcement seeking to track down other microbial suspects. "We found unique bio-markers to help investigators track down the source of the anthrax," said Dr. Steven Salzberg, director of the University of Maryland Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (CBCB). "At first the tiny mutations were elusive. We thought we'd pieced together the 'jigsaw puzzle' of data very neatly, until we ended up with a few oddball bits left over. When we looked more closely, we found an extra copy of a critical gene." "Fortunately, anthrax bacteria mutate relatively slowly, so the material in this colony developed these small distinctive mutations that resulted in physically distinct characteristics," explained Dr. Mihai Pop, Dr.
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