Researchers compare anthrax genomes

May 09, 2002

In a pioneering use of genomics as a tool for the forensic analysis of microbes, scientists at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Md., and at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff have found new genetic markers that distinguish the Bacillus anthracis isolate that was used in last fall's bioterror attack in Boca Raton, Florida, from closely related anthrax strains.

The findings, posted on Science Express on May 9 and scheduled for later publication in Science, demonstrate for the first time that the analysis of the genomes of microbial pathogens can be an effective method of finding new "genetic fingerprints" that can help trace the differences among nearly identical strains of microbes such as anthrax. Previous geneticmarker analysis had focused on a limited number of DNA segments, rather than the entire genomic sequence, of those microbes. The sequencing of the Florida isolate was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"These findings clearly demonstrate the value of microbial genome sequencing as a tool in defending against bioterrorism and in understanding the variations and relatedness of microbes in nature," said Rita Colwell, NSF director. "We at NSF are very pleased that our ability to expedite the review and funding of proposals submitted in response to national needs has brought these timely results."

Scientists can now expand on this information by generating genomic sequences for many different anthrax strains. In the recent TIGR study, the scientists compared information gained from a previous investigation into the Ames anthrax strain with the whole genome sequence of the Florida anthrax strain. Led by Timothy Read and Claire Fraser, the researchers determined areas of genetic variability between the two strains.

The investigators confirmed previous reports that the Florida isolate was derived from the Ames strain, and narrowed its origins to a defined Ames lineage. The Florida strain, the scientists discovered, comes from a 1981 isolate found in a Texas cow. This isolate was subsequently sent to Fort Detrick, Md. where it was used in research at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases.
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The Office of Naval Research and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health also funded the research.

Program Contact:
Maryanna Henkart
(703) 292-8440/mhenkart@nsf.gov

National Science Foundation

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