ANNAPOLIS – A new method developed by a University of Maryland research team, to trace the growth of anthrax spores, could aid the FBI in its ongoing anthrax investigations.
The College Park campus researchers, led by Catherine Fenselau, studied how spores such as anthrax are developed, which could help the FBI connect spores found in an investigation with their method of growth.
The University of Maryland team worked on the analysis from August 2002 to February 2003 in collaboration with FBI Academy scientists. The team submitted the report within the last month and the research will be submitted for scientific publication.
The FBI is still investigating the anthrax scare that struck in October 2001. Five people died and at least 18 others were infected with anthrax in Washington, D.C., New York and Florida.
As part of that probe, the bureau in June drained a 1-acre trout pond in Frederick County to hunt for anthrax spores or discarded biological equipment.
“I don’t think there’s been a precedent for determining growth conditions,” said Jeff Whiteaker, an analytical chemist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Maryland. “There has never been a case where you would want to know.”
Anthrax spores are grown using different media, including agar, a gelatin-like substance, and a blood-based medium containing heme, an iron-containing component of blood. After the spores are harvested, traces of these media are left behind like fingerprints. The team used five different types of blood-based mediums to develop the heme-detecting method.
“Our theory was that if you look at what is stuck to the outside of a spore, you can find out how it became a spore,” said Fenselau in a news release. “Even when you try to clean up the spores, there are still scraps of stuff on the surface.”
A mass spectrometer — a laboratory device that can distinguish a molecule by its weight and other characteristics — can determine if heme was used as the medium to produce the anthrax spores.
“It’s very sensitive and very specific,” said Whiteaker. “Even if we encounter compounds that have the same weight, we can confirm which molecule it is by the way it breaks up in the mass spectrometer.”
Neither Whiteaker nor the FBI would discuss the potential uses of the research.
“We were funded to develop the method and they (the FBI) are free to do what they want with it,” he said.
Department of Justice guidelines and pending anthrax investigations do not allow the FBI to comment on the new method or how it will be used, a spokeswoman said.