Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Many of you may have heard in the news that the FBI believes they had found the perpetrator of the infamous 2001 anthrax attacks during which envelopes coated with the deadly bug were sent to numerous individuals resulting in 5 deaths. There is apparently mounting evidence that the guilty party was Bruce Ivins, director of a U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases laboratory. He committed suicide before the case could proceed.

They used DNA technology to determine the source of the bug. This in and of itself is not unique; DNA evidence has been used in many cases (e.g., the O.J. case, paternity cases, etc). What was unique about this instance was the magnitude of sequencing which was done: researchers contracted with the The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) performed full genome sequencing on a number of colonies grown from the various anthrax-containing envelopes. This means that every single base ("A, G, T, and C") was determined for multiple anthrax strains, which even 10 years ago would have been unthinkable. They then used the sequence variations in the crime scene anthrax strains and matched them to samples found in various anthrax research labs across the U.S., which led them to Ivins' lab.

I guess it will be impossible to know for sure if it was definitely him, and it is as-yet unclear what his motive would have been. In any case, it's pretty cool for me to reflect back on the fact that I learned about the plan for the Human Genome Project during my 7th grade science class and now, not even 20 years later, we are routinely sequencing the entire genomes of other organisms.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the contrary, the Ivins Theory has fallen apart and was baseless to start. The genetics only limited things to 8 known isolates and 100 plus people at a small number of labs. It did not pinpoint a person (e.g., Ivins) but a stream. There was no other evidence. Dr. Keim himself said that while the FBI was relying on a suggestion that Dr. Ivins had submitted a false sample, Dr. Keim finds no support for the inference. Even before the case fell apart, the leading papers sought a congressional and Inspector General's investigation.

8:03 PM  
Blogger nathanhellman said...

Agreed that there are some aspects of the case which seem fishy, but his suicide makes him appear guilty.

The thing I found most compelling about my post is the knowledge that we have witnessed the beginning of the Human Genome Project to sequencing entire organism genomes as part of forensic analysis in the span of less than 20 years.

4:42 PM  

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