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Now, the story can be told - how scientists helped ID 'Amerithrax'
Date:3/8/2011

at resulted in physically distinct characteristics," explained Mihai Pop, Salzberg's CBCB colleague and article co-author. "If you isolate a colony of bacteria in a test tube, they'll slowly accumulate random mutations that make them distinct from any other samples of the same type of bacteria."

"Our colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Institute for Genome Sciences sequenced the DNA of the bacterial samples provided by the FBI. Then, using computational analysis, we identified four tiny changes in the DNA structure that the FBI could use as a fingerprint in their investigation," Salzberg explained.

"NOTHING LIKE CSI"

Working on a sensitive, high-profile project involving national security turned out to be nothing like Salzberg expected. It was 2001, several letters with anthrax powder had been sent to Capitol Hill and various media outlets. Five people had died and 19 more were sickened. The FBI asked Salzberg, Pop and their colleagues to analyze samples of the powdered anthrax in the letters.

"We mainly got blind samples most of the time we had no idea of the material's origin," Salzberg said. "Our job was to comb through the DNA sequence data and puzzle out the genetic structure. When we'd done it, we handed our report to the FBI, and they simply said, 'Thank you. You've been a great help.' We heard almost nothing for five years, which was frustrating at times. We wanted to ask, 'How did this help?'"

NRC FBI

Subsequently, the FBI concluded that only anthrax samples from test tube RMR-1029 at Ft. Detrick had the identical genetic structure with the anthrax powder sent through the U.S. mail. These samples shared the four quirks identified by the University of Maryland computational biology team.

Last month, a team of top scientists assembled by the National Research Council reviewed the FBI's investigation at the FBI's request. The report <

Contact: Neil Tickner
ntickner@umd.edu
301-405-4622
University of Maryland
Source:Eurekalert

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