U.S. Water News Online
BALTIMORE, Md. -- CIA-funded scientists have found a way to
trace weaponized anthrax spores to the place they were grown, using
the chemical fingerprints of local water supplies, a researcher says.
The method, presented at a biodefense conference in Baltimore,
measures minute quantities of oxygen and hydrogen isotopes that exist
in different ratios in water from different parts of the United
The telltale isotopes remain in the spores even if they are dried
into a fine powder, like the anthrax mailed to U.S. senators and
media organizations s hortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist
attacks, the researchers said.
Five people died as a result of the mailings. No arrests have been
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 the FBI may have used similar techniques to trace the
water or chemical nutrients used to grow the deadly bacteria used in
the mailings, which also infected 18.
FBI spokeswoman Debra Weierman said she could not discuss any
investigative techniques used in the anthrax probe.
The findings were presented at a meeting of the American Society
for Microbiology. The meeting drew 800 scientists from around the
world to discuss bioterrorism protection and treatment.
The researchers grew Bacillus subtilis, a harmless bacteria
resembling anthrax, using local water from five 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.
They were not able to tell bacteria grown in Durham from that
grown in Columbus, Ohio, though, because the water in those two
cities contains nearly identical quantities of the oxygen and
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.''
A Central Intelligence Agency scientist, Janet Dorigan,
collaborated on the study.
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