Anthrax strains and forensics

I’m sure everyone has heard by now about the two FL Anthrax cases and the possibility that this was not a natural occurance.

In the news reports I’ve seen, it’s been mentioned that there are two kinds of anthrax transmission, airborn and by contact with the skin. It was also seemingly implied that there are many different strains of anthrax.

Question: from the anthrax samples obtained in this FL case, will it be possible to identify a specific strain of the bacteria? And, more importantly, will this help determine where that strain originated? And will this help find out who (if anyone) might have caused this infection?

I have no idea, but I wonder the same thing so I’ll bump your post to the top before it falls off the first page.

To my knowledge, the sample will likely be able to reveal what STRAIN of antrax was used, unless it was messily collected and contaminated with other things that will make identification less possible. The labs will also probably try and match test results with known strains, which can determine where the strain was last seen, if not where it originated. If the strain has no record, or known history anywhere, then it might be possible to doa bit of genetic work on the bacteria and find a similar one, and that might determine its origins, although I imagine that there must be so many variations and possible mutations that this might not be really useful.

Other evidence at the scene (or other cases - lets hope not) might yeild more information.

At the least, we have found a new, potentially deadly strain of anthrax, and companies might already be working on the cure.

IANAMicrobiologist? Lab Researcher? - I’m just a lowly Biochem student, so believe me at your own risk!

The County of Los Angeles has a team of bioterrorism experts who work specifically on this topic. They are part of the Public Health Department. Most of the time they are off checking out stuff like cases of plague or tularemia.

That ‘news’ organization in Florida had received an envelope containing a “white, powdery, soapy” substance. Would that be an accurate description of anthrax spores?

A geneticist friend on another messageboard has just posted that over the Northen summer there was an epidemic of anthrax among deer herds from Texas to the Canadian border. She’s trying to find me a public access site for the data (she got if from Promedline). As the original victim was reported as being an “outdoors type”, and it was initially presumed he’d been infected vis creek water, I’m wondering if he was a deer hunter.

As soon as Carmel gets back with a site which us non-professionals can access, I’ll post the link.

Well, according to Entertainment Tonight (so take this as you will), they’ve ruled out any connection between the anthrax scare and the soapy substance.

I’m afraid this topic is to technical for this Board. On the one hand, B. anthracis “may be the most genetically uniform bacterial species known” but on the other hand, amplified fragment length polymorphism “markers did establish the presence or absence of the pXO1 and pXO2 plasmids and detected 31 polymorphic chromosomal regions among the 79 B. anthracis isolates” in a recent study. The authors of the study went on to say that “Cluster analysis identified two very distinct genetic lineages among the B. anthracis isolates. The level of variation and its geographic distribution are consistent with a historically recent African origin for this pathogenic organism. Based on AFLP marker similarity, the ongoing anthrax epidemic in Canada and the northern United States is due to a single strain introduction that has remained stable over at least 30 years and a 1,000-mile distribution.” from Keim P, Kalif A, Schupp J, Hill K, Travis SE, Richmond K, Adair DM, Hugh-Jones M, Kuske CR, Jackson P. Molecular evolution and diversity in Bacillus anthracis as detected by amplified fragment length polymorphism markers J Bacteriol 1997.
Feb;179(3):818-24 which you may find at

I would say that the answer to the OP is “perhaps.”

OK, a couple of links to the Promed stuff.

This link will take you to details of the Texas outbreak, and this one will take you to the Promed search facility where you can research what’s been happening with anthrax and other diseases lately.

Thanks, reprise - very interesting. Considering that the FL man was said to be an avid outdoorsman and gardener and had recently been on a hiking trip, I thought of a couple of possible scenarios resulting in accidental infection. Maybe while hiking he came across a deer carcass and, not realizing the risk of disease, took the antlers as a souvenir and carried them to his office to show them around? Or maybe he found and dug up an interesting plant that happened to be growing in spore-infested soil, potted it, and took it to his office. If it were knocked over and the dirt spilled, several people could have been exposed to the spores, and the plant and pot thrown out in the trash.

I did find this, though: FBI Studies Anthrax Spores

Possibly not accurate, though - people get excited and misunderstand or misquote things.

Here’s an update: FBI says anthrax germs manmade

squeegee, I guess that answers your question in a sort of roundabout way.

Hi, thanks to all who’ve contributed.

Well, it seems like the first piece of the puzzle, but I was more interested in whether the bacteria could be traced to a probable source, either to an area of the world where it originated, or linked to a to known strain (which that story seems to rule out, but I’m skeptical that they could have checked against ALL identified strains of anthrax so quickly), either of which might tell us something about how this sample came to be in that building in FL.

I thought Yeah’s comments were encouraging: the bacteria evolves slowly, which I would think would limit the number of strains, and there are indeed genetic markers (is this the correct term?) that can help identify a sample’s lineage. There have also been comments in the news that the samples obtained from the building and the victims will undergo genetic analysis, presumably to establish an origin.

I’d be very interested to hear what this analysis can tell us: “This anthrax strain came from the soil of north-central belgium about 2-7 years ago” or “this sample is related in the following way to the strain found in outbreak xyz in 1973”. Will this be a helpful clue to catching the (I guess we have to say ‘alleged’ for now) perpetrator(s)?

And what, exactly, does “manmade” mean in that story? Is the bacteria that was found genetically engineered? It seems that the FBI is concluding that it is “manmade” because it’s unidentified, which seems like quite a stretch.

In any case, I’d guess in the near term there will be no lack of research funds for answering this question.


this story states that there are “more than 1,200 known strains of the anthrax bacterium” and that “federal investigators said they may have matched ``unique characteristics’’ of the anthrax that killed Stevens to a strain harvested at an Iowa facility in the 1950s”

Meanwhile, another story states that, “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FBI officials have determined the strain of anthrax found in Boca Raton was created or modified either in a lab in Ames, Iowa, Texas or Haiti, a senior U.S. government official told NBC News Wednesday”

So it seems there is a great deal to be learned from analyzing the anthrax samples. I’m sure there will be more to follow.

Just in case anyone is still following this thread, a third case of anthrax at the FL site has been identified.

But remember it’s just that a third person was exposed. The woman has not contracted the disease.