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Last Updated

16 Sep 2003

Source: Arizona Daily Sun, September 15, 2003

Anthrax lab closes in on DNA marker

By SETH MULLER, Sun Staff Reporter

Although bioterrorism attacks using anthrax have diminished following the post-Sept. 11 outbreak of it, researchers at Northern Arizona University continue to work diligently in identifying strains of the potentially deadly pathogen.

Paul Keim, the NAU Cowden Chair in Microbiology, heads the genetics lab at the university, and he and his staff of 40 have remained at the forefront of research into the genetics of anthrax.

Even though anthrax has not been a recent threat, the genetics lab continues work "toward preventing and solving the next bioterrorist attack," Keim wrote in a Wednesday e-mail from Costa Rica, where he is studying rain forests while on sabbatical.

"In essence, we have advanced the technology of DNA 'fingerprinting' B. anthracis (anthrax) to new levels," Keim wrote. "This technology is transferred to federal agencies in real time exercises to make the country as prepared as possible ... At this point the Keim Lab personnel are the world's experts in the study of bacterial pathogens that could be used in bioterrorism events."

The lab does not limit its studies to anthrax, however. It also studies other common bacteria and tries to understand natural disease outbreaks to help better identify when an outbreak is an act of bioterrorism.

Beyond terrorism, the lab is trying to advance the research of "biocrimes" -- crimes using pathogens.

An example of this would be someone using the HIV virus as an unconventional murder weapon.

"In order to limit the impact of these crimes by convicting their perpetrators, we are using genomic analysis to develop DNA fingerprinting methods, technology and theory," Keim wrote.

The operation of the high-tech genetics lab does not come cheap. The lab has required more than $3 million in federal grants and contracts. To date, Keim and his staff have received money from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the National Institutes of Health.

"We have had great support from Arizona's congressional delegation," Keim added. "They have recognized the importance of this work to the country and fought to keep it at NAU."

In the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, numerous letters containing anthrax were sent via mail to the Capitol Hill and the White House in Washington, as well as media outlets and various addresses in New York.

Five people died from inhaled anthrax in the two months following Sept. 11.

Keim has said that the greatest success of the anthrax mailings in the U.S. last fall was not the number of deaths, as a widespread attack using anthrax wouldn't likely be very fatal in this country because of the wide availability of antibiotics.

The success, he believes, was in how it disrupted the government and the U.S. mail and businesses, and how it scared the general population.

The Keim lab houses the most diverse collection of anthrax strains in the world, and members have confirmed that they're helping to provide the FBI with a scientific lead in the case that began shortly after Sept. 11.

The work to address antibiotic resistance in the bacteria was begun before the anthrax attacks, Smith said. Keim's lab has been publishing data about the genetic diversity and identification of anthrax since 1997.

The lab also studies rabbit fever (species name Francisella tularensis) -- the most recent Arizona outbreak of which was reported in the Phoenix Zoo's primate population last year -- as well as several species in the genus Brucella, which cause spontaneous abortions in farm animals and a strange fever in humans, and species of the genus Burkholderia, little-known bacteria that cause fatal lung rot.

The lab also brings in about $300,000 a year to develop disease resistance in soybean crops, and about $150,000 a year to study cottonwoods in collaborative research with other NAU scientists. Another estimated $100,000 in miscellaneous grants goes toward work with wildlife genetics.