CSI for the Genetic Age

By The Intersection | August 8, 2008 9:30 am

by Philip H.

DISCLAIMER – The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author alone. They do NOT represent the official opinion, policy, or action of any governmental agency the author may work for or have ever worked for at the county, state or federal level. If you do not like the content or opinions, contact the author, not your Congressmen.

On Wednesday 6 August 2008, the FBI and Justice Department briefed the world on the conclusions of its anthrax investigation. This particular sleuthing began in the shadow of 9/11, when anthrax laced letters were found on Capitol Hill and in post offices in the eastern US. 6 people died, and many others were sickened.

In the beginning, the Bush Administration was quick to point the finger toward Al Qaeda and Iraq. The Administration believed its own hype, that terrorists had weaponized anthrax virus sprung from Saddam Hussein or some similar source. As the attacks continued through September and October of 2001, it seemed almost certain that America had fallen into another well-planned assault from afar.

Yet as the weeks wore on, the Justice Department made repeated announcements that the anthrax was not from some foreign source, but had come from a strain originally culture in Ames Iowa (from a dead Texas cow as it turned out), and it was similar to a stock pile the Army had been doing work on at Fort Detrick, MD. Painstaking detective work eventually lead them to an Army bioweapons researcher, who is believed to have committed suicide the day he was to meet with prosecutors who would have offered him a plea deal. Sadly, if he did it, and the evidence seems strong, we’ll never know why.

From a scientific perspective, however, this case is interesting for a whole host of other reasons. This was the first real investigation of a “loose” biological weapon in the U.S., and so it tested many parts of the law enforcement scientific enterprise. The investigation also occurred at the start of what history may call the Genetic Age – a time when our understanding of evolution, ecology, and human impacts was greatly expanded because of increasing use of genetic technology.

Since 2001, the biological sciences have seen a veritable explosion of genetic sample analysis equipment and methods. Current editions of Science, for instance, are full of ads for rapid genotyping machines, high-resolution electrophoresis gels, and a myriad of other genetic based sampling and testing equipment. Geneticists have also mapped the complete human genome, along with the gene sequences of many other animals. Genetic testing is revealing all sorts of links to diseases, and gene therapy is now no longer the stuff of science fiction legends. In short, genetic work is becoming as commonplace in science as measurements of sea surface temperature from satellites, and the wealth of data this generates is still not fully understood.

In a rare move, the FBI quickly grasped the potential of genetic sampling and identification techniques then in their infancy. They also grasped that they were not equipped to learn all the protocols and purchase the equipment. So they outsourced to a number of labs around the country, and I have a sneaking suspicion that their demands for certain types of information helped drive innovations in genetic identification and testing.

This appears to be a case where science was moved along by government needs, and where government agency personnel recognized and affirmed the utility of private scientific actions. And, when combined with dogged old-fashioned police work, the Justice Department broke a major case wide open. Science won the day. All without the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and extraordinary rendition. But that’s another story I suppose.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics and Science

Comments (5)

  1. AbleFable

    This story is far from over. They’ve accused others before, only to be wrong. So how come they so sure now? There seems to be a strong backlash from “family and friends” who all say that the FBI is incorrect. Something smells fishy… but of course, we will never know the truth.

  2. This appears to be a case where science was moved along by government needs …

    Hardly. The complete genome sequence of Haemophilus influenzae was completed in 1995. The complete genome sequence of Escherichia coli was completed in 1997. The rapid sequencing of bacterial genomes had been on-going for years, a decade even, prior to any FBI/DOJ involvement. So … while you “suspect” that this might be the case, it hardly makes it so. Most of these processes and analytical methods were already firmly entrenched in the molecular biological field well beforehand.

  3. TomJoe,

    The techniques may have been entrenched in the academic portion of the field for some time, but the coverage of this story from many angles points strongly to this case being a watershed event in bringing those techniques to the forefront of federal law enforcement. The coverage also points strongly to a convergence of rapidly decreasing analytical times for a given specimen (days to hours) when a government agency had a need to quickly identify the genetic origin of a pathogen in a criminal investigation. So, from the outside, it does look like the FBI at least benefited from, if not drove, some significant increase in sample processing ability that has occurred in the last decade.

    And, since this blog is all about the convergence of science, culture and society, I was trying to highlight that angle of the story.

  4. First, let me apologize for my strongly worded first comment. Whether I agree with your premise or not, my criticism could have been more gently worded. Mea culpa.

    Second, I agree with your comments that this has made an interesting case from a scientific perspective. I do however have concerns regarding the FBI tapping scientific institutions to do work such as this. I’m not sure who did what work, either I’ve missed it or it hasn’t been revealed in toto yet, but I can only imagine a number of questions are raised … most importantly that of the “Chain of Command”, which is an integral part of any criminal investigation. Did the labs have such protocols in place?

    I also think things get a lot more complicated when institutions stray away from applied and basic research and into what is essentially forensics. Surely the FBI had the capabilities (albeit at a slower pace) to perform similar work … and if not, IMO they should’ve made sure they were ahead of the curve … or at least riding the same wave.

    As a government employee myself, albeit in a different department/agency, I can definitely see instances where government needs move along science. Just in this particular instance, though it might be myself who is wrong, I think pre-existing scientific methods saved the FBIs rear-end.

    Anyways, welcome to Science Blogs Philip, and sorry for the less than warm welcome.

  5. llewelly

    To me, the most striking aspect of your article is that you portray the anthrax investigation as a success story. But it’s been nearly 7 years, and there is still plenty of reason to doubt Ivins was guilty. The ‘potential of genetic sampling and identification techniques’ which the FBI ‘quickly grasped’ does not appear to have enabled a quick and clear resolution to the problem, although it may well have been important in directing them away from the pretension that Iraq was involved.

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