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Los Alamos Nuclear Lab Now Doing DNA Detective Work on Source of Anthrax
By Deborah Baker Associated Press Writer
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) - The Los Alamos National Laboratory, best known as the birthplace of the atomic bomb, is now conducting crucial biological detective work to solve the anthrax attacks wreaking havoc on the East Coast. Using increasingly sophisticated DNA detection technologies, scientists here are working to identify the deadly microbe's biological fingerprints.
It's not much different in principle from how crime labs use genetic fingerprinting to nab suspects or establish paternity in child custody cases, officials said. Just a whole lot more sophisticated. The lab maintains the world's largest bank of genetic information on Bacillus anthracis, the organism that causes anthrax. More than 1,200 strains are on file, with 100 more newly identified strains from nature and scientific programs added every year from around the world.
It's part of a $10 million program that combines years of work at universities, as well as at Los Alamos. Until the current investigation, the lab's biggest anthrax cases were conducted after-the-fact.
In 1994 Los Alamos helped provide some answers to one of the world's most perplexing biological warfare puzzles: Why did 68 people living near a weapons plant in the former Soviet Union die suddenly in 1979? At the time, Soviet leaders blamed contaminated meat sold in the Russian city of Sverdlovsk - now called Yekaterinburg. But in 1992, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin confirmed that anthrax was being weaponized there in violation of international agreements.
Two years later, Los Alamos researchers and others examined tissue from the victims. Tests confirmed that all were infected by an unnatural mixture of anthrax strains, indicating they probably inhaled spores released from the weapons plant.
Today, Los Alamos is largely mum on its current anthrax mission. Officials will only discuss in general terms the esoteric DNA analysis going on. Lab spokeswoman Nancy Ambrosiano said simply the lab is "able to aid in identification" of the bacteria strain. The lab has highly advanced equipment, some of it able to run 100 times faster and 200,000 times more sensitive than conventional DNA testing. And it requires less than 2-trillionths of a gram of DNA to perform the analysis, lab officials said. "It's forensic analysis - helps you find the bad guy, or helps you find if it's natural or not," said Jill Trewhella, Bioscience Division director.
U.S. officials say the anthrax sent to a handful of people in the mail is the Ames strain, one of the most common, most virulent and one used in American bioweapons research and in vaccine testing. The anthrax spores themselves were refined to be more effective, federal officials have said. But the experts have been unable to figure out if the bacteria came from this country or elsewhere.
Bacillus anthracis, the microbe that causes anthrax, belongs to a large family of bacteria, including benign soil microbes and pathogens that cause food poisoning, with only a few genetic differences between them. Within anthrax itself, there are hundreds of strains from around the world, and they are remarkably similar. Los Alamos scientists have separated their subtle biological features to understand how they differ.
In cases like the current anthrax mystery, the researchers try to establish a genetic profile of the unidentified sample. First they amplify its genetic material to make the sample larger and easier to work with. Then they measure parts of the genetic material, comparing individual genes or even single DNA fragments. Different strains of anthrax would have slightly different repeat patterns in their genetic fingerprints. The sample's profile is compared to known strains. "We are looking at the differences in the genome that are less than 1-thousandth of 1 percent," project leader Paul Jackson said in a statement.
Prior to the current anthrax attacks, Los Alamos biologists revealed important details of anthrax obtained during a UN team's inspections of the Iraqi bioweapons program. On the commercial side, the lab traced an anthrax outbreak in Australia to 145-year-old anthrax spores from buried cattle that had been imported from India.
The lab today is also working on potential anthrax treatments. Goutam Gupta, a structural biologist, is developing decoy molecules that fool the toxins generated by dangerous bacteria. The toxins latch onto the decoys by mistake, allowing the body's immune system's killer cells to mount a defense. The decoys could someday be part of a short-term vaccine against anthrax and other biological warfare agents.
Until now, Los Alamos has not used actual bacteria in its studies.That could change if lab officials are authorized to open a more secure "Level 3" biosafety laboratory. Trewhella said detection systems and defenses against biological weapons will require the use of "small amounts of live, virulent agent."
Earlier this year, the Department of Energy's Inspector General warned that experiments with lethal viruses and bacteria conducted at eight federal weapons labs, including Los Alamos, lacked required oversight and controls. Before they can build a live-agent lab, Los Alamos must complete an environmental assessment and obtain federal approval.
AP science writer Joseph B. Verrengia contributed to this story.
-- Swissrose (firstname.lastname@example.org), November 01, 2001