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Last Updated

26 Sep 2003

Source:  New York Times, September 26, 2003

F.B.I. Names Top Scientists for Advisory Panel on Germs


Caught unprepared by the anthrax attacks two years ago, the F.B.I. has formed a scientific brain trust that is helping find new ways to track down germ attackers, be they criminals or terrorists.

The advisory board of about 35 members includes academic stars, as well as top federal scientists with expertise in biology, chemistry, physics and forensics, the application of science to legal cases.

"If you want to do a good job, you go to the best," the chairman of the panel, Bruce Budowle, a senior F.B.I. scientist, said. "They see this as an important issue and want to help."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Dr. Budowle said in an interview, has never before gathered such a diverse body of scientific advisory talent or taken on a hard scientific job like pinpointing when and where a germ weapon was made. The bureau once had a reputation for shoddy or even faulty science but has worked hard at improving its work.

The new group is aiding the effort to advance the new science of microbial forensics, which studies deadly germs usually invisible to the human eye. It seeks to identify where a living weapon arose by analyzing its signature features and tracing it back to a particular nation, region, laboratory or microbe dish.

The work is like tracking down where a gun in a criminal case was made and bought, if not necessarily who pulled the trigger.

The new science looks for clues in places like the DNA of a microbe, contaminants in an attack powder and trace chemicals that hint at where and when an attack germ was grown. The science seeks investigative tools and evidence strong enough to hold up in court.

A board member, Dr. Paul S. Keim, a prominent geneticist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, said the effort had the potential to produce quick leads for law enforcement.

"This is a tremendous step toward deterring potential biocrimes or catching those responsible for future acts," Dr. Keim said.

Most experts consider another germ attack on the United States only a matter of time.

Today, the brain trust makes its public debut in Science magazine, where Dr. Budowle of the F.B.I. and eight members of the advisory body discuss some of its work, goals and techniques.

Dr. Budowle said that the names of some members were not being released because they worked for sensitive arms of the government.

Perhaps as surprising as the brain trust is the high caliber of the F.B.I. scientists who are working on germ forensics, several scientists said.

Dr. Matthew S. Meselson, an expert from Harvard on biological weapons who has advised the bureau on the anthrax-tainted letters, said he and his colleagues admired the federal scientists' talent and dedication.

"I was surprised at how competent they were, how young," Dr. Meselson said. "I was very impressed with these people. They were high quality."

Dr. Steven E. Schutzer, an immunologist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark who is on the advisory board, also praised the scientists.

"I was pleasantly surprised," Dr. Schutzer said. "I found them sharp. During down times, when you'd talk about your own research. They got it and could offer insights."

He added that board members worked free and that they had in some instances decided to help the bureau despite reservations about Washington's ability to get things done.

"Instead of criticizing the government," Dr. Schutzer said, "we decided to step forward and see what we could do."

The skills of the advisory board and the bureau's scientists are no guarantee of success, experts said. The fledgling science of germ forensics, they noted, is inherently difficult. As an example, some added that the investigation into who sent the letters with anthrax in September and October 2001, which killed five people and sickened more than 12 others, has apparently produced no breakthroughs despite nearly two years of hard work.

Even so, experts added, new methods for investigating deadly germs promise to produce significant new leverage in helping investigators track when and where biological weapons were made.

For instance, scientists at the University of Utah have developed a way to zero in on a rare oxygen isotope, oxygen 18, a form of the element that has two extra neutrons in its nucleus.

In lakes, rivers and water supplies across the nation, oxygen 18 occurs in differing concentrations, with maps showing its variable presence as colorful contour bands. More oxygen 18 occurs in sea water than fresh water, so rain and snow near coastlines tend to have more of it because it is heavier than oxygen 16 and falls out sooner.

Helen Kreuzer-Martin, a leader of the Utah research, said that laboratory investigations of deadly germs like anthrax could disclose the oxygen 18 taken from local waters and that those readings could be matched to contour maps to help pinpoint the growth location.

In a blind test published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February, the team examined oxygen 18 signatures to identify four areas, Baton Rogue, La.; Columbus, Ohio; Los Alamos, N.M.; and Salt Lake City, where colleagues had grown benign cousins of anthrax.