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Confirmation Of My Cochrane Blog On Anthrax And Genome Sequencing
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August 06, 2008, 11:56 PM
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As I`ve been pointing out, the hero in this investigation is the advance in genome sequencing technology over the last seven years. The Washington Post reports:

Much of what the FBI seeks to explain involves the scientific trail, which included 19 outside laboratories at a cost of $10 million, that led investigators to Ivins. The Justice Department yesterday continued to discuss whether it can shutter one of the most perplexing investigations in FBI history and unseal the bulky case files in their entirety.

"We crossed a number of scientific barriers in this case," said one senior FBI official who has been ordered not to talk about the case publicly. "We literally were inventing science as we went along."

Law enforcement sources and published scientific papers indicate that the investigation gained traction through technological and scientific advances that dramatically speeded up the process of differentiating the genetic makeup of hundreds of distinct but closely related strains of bacteria.

Coupled with a fresh scientific understanding of the subtle differences between the strains and a new system for analyzing them, the rapid "sequencing" machines made it possible to detect the minuscule differences and link the one used in the attacks to a single laboratory.

At the time of the attacks, the knowledge to accomplish this in less than decades of laborious work did not exist. But the science of reading and analyzing DNA was on the verge of an explosion, one that the anthrax attacks may have helped to speed up.

Bruce Budowle, an FBI scientist at its lab in Quantico, reported to an international conference in September 2003 that a new field of forensic science — known as microbial forensics — had evolved as a result of the investigation. The letter attacks, he said, showed the "need to enhance our capabilities for forensic attribution."

The FBI has boasted publicly only in general terms about the scientific accomplishments in the case. Laboratories and researchers involved in the work under FBI contracts signed agreements not to discuss their contributions, but some relevant insights have emerged in scientific papers published over the past six years as work progressed on decoding the genetic composition of Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacterium. ...

J. Craig Venter, former head of the Institute for Genomic Research, said such investigation was impossible before the recent advances. "This is just applying that same technology to forensic purposes. It`s more the use of it to solve a particular criminal problem rather than [to] make advances in science," he said.