The deadly bacterial spores mailed to victims in the US anthrax attacks,
scientists say, share a chemical 'fingerprint' that is not found in
bacteria from the flask linked to Bruce Ivins, the biodefence
researcher implicated in the crime.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) alleges that Ivins, who committed suicide last
July, was the person responsible for mailing letters laden with Bacillus anthracis
to news media and congressional offices in 2001, killing five people
and sickening 17. The FBI used genetic analyses to trace the mailed
spores back to a flask called RMR-1029, which Ivins could access in his
laboratory at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious
Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
Investigators used genetic analyses to track down the particular strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the attacks.
At a biodefence meeting on 24 February, Joseph Michael, a materials
scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico,
presented analyses of three letters sent to the New York Post and to
the offices of Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Spores from two
of those show a distinct chemical signature that includes silicon,
oxygen, iron, and tin; the third letter had silicon, oxygen, iron and
possibly also tin, says Michael. Bacteria from Ivins' RMR-1029 flask
did not contain any of those four elements.
Two cultures of the same anthrax strain grown using similar processes — one from Ivins'
lab, the other from a US Army facility in Utah — showed the
silicon-oxygen signature but did not contain tin or iron. Michael
presented the analyses at the American Society for Microbiology's
Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting in Baltimore,
The chemical mismatch doesn't necessarily mean that deadly spores used in the attacks did not originate from Ivins'
RMR-1029 flask, says Jason Bannan, a microbiologist and forensic
examiner at the FBI's Chemical Biological Sciences Unit in Quantico,
Virginia. The RMR-1029 culture was created in 1997, and the mailed
spores could have been taken out of that flask and grown under
different conditions, resulting in varying chemical contents. "It
doesn't surprise me that it would be different," he says.
The data suggest that spores for the three letters were grown using the
same process, says Michael. It is not clear how tin and iron made their
way into the culture, he says. Bannan suggests that the growth medium
may have contained iron and tin may have come from a water source.
Hard to tell apart
The meeting offered scientists who collaborated with the FBI during the
investigation an opportunity to share detailed data. The analyses will
eventually be published in peer-reviewed journals, the FBI has said.
Jacques Ravel, a genomics scientist at the University of Maryland School of
Medicine in Baltimore, described his team's efforts to find genetic
differences between various cultures of the Ames strain, the B. anthracis
strain identified in the anthrax letters. At first, the team was
surprised to find that the DNA sequences of a reference Ames strain and
Ames samples from the investigation, such as bacteria isolated from the
spinal fluid of the first victim, were exactly the same. "It was kind
of a shock," says Ravel.
For help, the researchers turned to variants found by a team at USAMRIID. Patricia Worsham and her
colleagues had noticed differences in shape, colour and rate of spore
formation even within a single anthrax culture. Ravel's team identified
the genetic mutations associated with four variants and developed an
assay for one of them, called Morph E. Researchers at Commonwealth
Biotechnologies in Richmond, Virginia, and the Midwest Research
Institute's Florida Division in Palm Bay created assays for three other
The FBI then used that arsenal of tests to pin down the origins of the anthrax letters, matching the mix of genetic
variants in the mailed spores to Ivins' RMR-1029 flask. "It has the
genetic signatures that identify it as the most likely source of the
growth," says Bannan.
Ravel also sequenced the genome of a Bacillus subtilis strain that was found in one of the letters. That sample did not match a B. subtilis strain found in Ivins' lab, says Bannan, but the bacterial
contamination still could have come from somewhere else in Ivins'
The FBI has asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to convene an
independent panel of experts to review the anthrax investigation data.
The academy is still in the process of drawing up a contract with the
FBI that lays out an agreement to perform the study, says NAS
spokeswoman Christine Stencel.
Thomas DeGonia, Ivins' lawyer at Venable LLP in Rockville, Maryland, maintains Ivins' innocence.