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Last Updated

02 Jul 2003

Source: The Arizona Republic, July 2, 2003

Arizona plague's DNA is mapped

TGen discovery aids terror fight

Kerry Fehr-Snyder, The Arizona Republic

A Phoenix research group has mapped the genetic makeup of Arizona plague, a discovery that will give bioterrorism sleuths another tool in identifying an intentional release of the potentially lethal bacteria.

The feat marks the first major scientific finding by the Translational Genomics Research Institute, a consortium of researchers and doctors established in Phoenix last year.

TGen worked with Northern Arizona University scientist Paul Keim to identify the genetic fingerprint of the plague, which is among the federal government's top bioterrorism agents.

Arizona plague is not much different than other strains of the plague, said Jeff Touchman, TGen's sequencing facility director and an assistant professor at Arizona State University. But even small genetic differences in plague strains are important in identifying the bacteria's origin in the event of a bioterrorism attack.

Such differences were vital in identifying the anthrax strain used in the anthrax letter attacks two years ago.

Highly infectious, the plague is easily treatable with antibiotics if diagnosed early. But it also conjures up images of the Black Death from the Middle Ages when armies would fling plague victims into fortresses to infect enemies. TGen's plague sequence will be kept private until submitted to a scientific journal, probably in six months.

TGen and the Arizona Board of Regents have filed for provisional patents on the research so that any firms wishing to use the information to develop diagnostic tests will have to pay royalties.