Bioscience

A Trained Eye Finally Solved the Anthrax Puzzle

August 21, 2008

By Flinn Foundation

[Source New York Times, By NICHOLAS WADE] – When the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced it had cracked the long-unsolved anthrax case, the turning point cited by the bureau was its identification of a laboratory flask as the source of the anthrax.

The dots, or in this case more than a thousand separate anthrax samples, were connected with the help of a group of scientists working secretly for some seven years. They succeeded by using a combination of new techniques not even invented in late 2001 when the anthrax-laced letters were sent, and that most old-fashioned attribute of expert scientists and detectives: a trained eye.

Now, in their first interviews, after being released this week from their vows of silence, several scientists explained how they charted a new frontier in microbial forensics, one that could have the same evidentiary power as DNA fingerprinting in criminal cases.

The scientists say they are confident the F.B.I. has identified the source of the anthrax, a flask in the custody of Bruce E. Ivins, whom the F.B.I. considers to have been the perpetrator of the attacks. But almost a hundred other people were known to have had access to cultures from the flask, and the scientists say they have no opinion as to whether Dr. Ivins, who committed suicide last month, was the culprit. Some former colleagues and other experts have questioned whether the government was right in suspecting Dr. Ivins, a researcher at the Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md. But the technical feat of matching the attack anthrax to its source is itself a gripping tale of scientific detection.

The scientific chase began in late 2001 as the first person to contract anthrax from powder in a letter lay dying in a Florida hospital. The victim, Robert Stevens, 63, a photo editor at The Sun, a tabloid, was suffering from pulmonary anthrax, and the F.B.I. needed to know whether the anthrax in the attacks, which began a week after Sept. 11, was natural, or a biological weapon.
A sample of anthrax from Mr. Stevens