From the Washington Post, 10/27/08:
Weeks after the 2001 anthrax attacks, FBI scientists launched an unprecedented effort to harness technology to find the killer. The effort took six years to bear fruit and involved techniques that had not been invented when the attacks occurred. Here are some highlights:
Chasing Ames: The FBI quickly learned that the bioterrorist used a strain of anthrax known as Ames. It was commonly used in U.S. biodefense labs, but no one knew who else might possess the strain in countries around the world. After searching the globe, the bureau found only 18 labs that had Ames.
Debunking the "weaponization" myth: The anthrax letters mailed to U.S. Senate offices contained a wispy powder that some experts initially described as "weaponized" -- treated with chemicals or additives so it would spread easily and kill more people. It wasn't true. Scientists found no additives and no evidence of deliberate genetic manipulation. A small amount of silicon was found inside the outer shells of the microbes, but tests showed it was a natural phenomenon resulting from the way the bacteria were grown. Looking for human DNA: Scientists searched extensively for any human traces -- hair, fiber, DNA, fingerprints -- in the letters and in the anthrax powder itself. None were found.
Finding the mutants: Anthrax bacteria are notoriously slow to mutate, but FBI investigators hoped they would find even a single genetic abnormality in the attack strain that could later be matched to anthrax spores in the possession of the bioterrorist. Anthrax spores recovered from the letters contained five different kinds of mutated cells. The mutants were easily spotted because they looked different from normal anthrax when grown in a lab.
Designing tests: After finding the mutations, the FBI and its scientific partners developed special tests called assays to help them find the same mutations in other samples of anthrax.
Building a repository: The FBI began collecting and testing samples of Ames anthrax from around the world. Of more than 1,000 samples, eight contained the same genetic mutations as the microbes used in the anthrax attacks. Each of the eight samples could be traced to a single flask of anthrax bacteria created by Army scientist Bruce Ivins.
Deconstructing "Bruce's spores": Agents were able to trace the history of Ivins's flask of anthrax spores -- known as RMR-1029 -- identifying the "parent" strains as well as how the collection of spores was used after Ivins finished making it in 1997. They discovered that the flask, kept in a private storage area, was accessed only by Ivins himself. Even his lab assistants did not know which flask contained the spores.
Maintaining secrecy: Ivins had been a key suspect for the FBI for nearly two years before his death, yet the bureau, learning from past mistakes, fought to keep any hint of suspicion from becoming publicly known. When Ivins's house was searched last November, agents performed the search at night and covered up windows with cloth so neighbors wouldn't see.
An abrupt end: Ivins, knowing an indictment was imminent, ended his life in late July with a drug overdose.
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