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Last Updated

12 Mar 2003

Source: Baltimore Sun, March 12, 2003

New methods trace anthrax source by water

CIA funded research on chemicals in supplies

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

Scientists funded by the CIA have developed a method to trace anthrax spores used in a terrorist attack to the place they were grown by identifying the distinct chemical fingerprint of local water supplies.

Their research, presented yesterday at a biodefense conference in Baltimore, measured minute quantities of certain oxygen and hydrogen isotopes that exist in different ratios in water from different parts of the United States.

The telltale chemicals remain in the spores even if they are dried into a fine powder, like the anthrax mailed to U.S. senators and media organizations in the fall of 2001.

Helen W. Kreuzer-Martin, a University of Utah biologist and lead author of the study, said FBI agents working on the anthrax investigation have consulted her research team about their methods but have not given them a sample of the mailed anthrax for testing.

She said it is possible that the FBI has used similar techniques to trace the water or chemical nutrients used to grow the deadly bacteria.

The findings were presented to the American Society for Microbiology meeting, which has drawn 800 scientists from as far away as Ukraine and Australia to the Marriott Waterfront Hotel to discuss ways to detect bioterrorism, protect people and treat victims.

In their anthrax study, researchers grew Bacillus subtilis, a harmless bacteria that resembles anthrax, using local water from five different U.S. cities. After freeze-drying the spores and analyzing them, they were easily able to distinguish those grown in Baton Rouge, La.; Los Alamos, N.M.; Durham, N.C.; and Salt Lake City.

But they were not able to tell bacteria grown in Durham from bacteria grown in Columbus, Ohio, because the water in those two cities contains nearly identical quantities of the oxygen and hydrogen isotopes.

Thus, while the method might not pinpoint the exact source of water used to grow germs, it can rule out many locations.

"It's not foolproof," Kreuzer-Martin said. "But if the terrorist used water from the tap, we could tell a lot about where the spores were grown. We could say, for example, the spores were not grown in Iraq, they were not grown at Dugway Proving Ground [in Utah], but they could have been grown in Chicago."

Obviously, she said, if the terrorist used water transported from elsewhere, the analysis would point to the source of the water rather than the place the anthrax was made.

Terrorism experts say tracing the perpetrator of an anonymous terrorist attack - whether it uses germs, poison gas, explosives or radioactive material - is critical if those responsible are to face punishment or retaliation.

That explains the Central Intelligence Agency's funding of the work and the fact that a CIA scientist, Janet Dorigan, collaborated on the study.

In the pursuit of the anthrax mailer, top FBI officials have said that no possible sources have been ruled out, including foreign countries such as Iraq and the possibility of a renegade American scientist.

But since last summer, agents appear to have zeroed in on the area around Fort Detrick in Frederick, the major source of the Ames strain of anthrax used in the mailings.

They repeatedly searched the apartment of former Army biowarfare expert Dr. Steven J. Hatfill and spent two weeks this winter searching woods and ponds for discarded biological equipment.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government has more than quadrupled bioterrorism funding, and researchers have rushed to study smallpox, anthrax and other diseases that today pose little or no natural threat to human beings.

But while some public health experts fear the terror threat is distorting research, scientists in Baltimore yesterday said much of the bioterror work is basic research that should shed light on issues from HIV to cancer.