May 22, 2003 

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Anthrax Genome (video)
April 30, 2003

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Interviewee: Tim Read, TIGR.

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Produced by Joyce Gramza

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy Peter Sforza, NBC News, and The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR).

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Elsewhere on the web

CDC Anthrax page

National Human Genome Research Institute

Genetics researchers report they've completed sequencing the genome of anthrax.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, scientists can now zero in on what makes anthrax a killer.

Bad Bug

Scientists at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) have finished sequencing the genome of the bacterium that causes anthrax, and they say the killer bug is closely related to a mostly harmless soil bacterium found in any garden.

Researchers report in the May 1, 2003 issue of the journal Nature that there are only small differences between Bacillus anthracis, the deadly anthrax bacterium, and Bacillus cereus, a common soil bacterium that sometimes causes a form of food poisoning. “If you take the chromosome of anthrax, you find, say, about 5000 genes,” explains Timothy Read, assistant investigator at TIGR. “If you look at the similar chromosomes of B. cereus, the garden strain, you'll find about 95 percent the same genes. So it's very, very close, and mostly in the same order, in the same place around the chromosome.”

But there is one key difference between these two strains of bacteria. “Basically, the difference between B. anthracis and the closely-related soil strains that are mostly pretty harmless is the fact that B. anthracis has two of these extra circular [DNA] molecules in its genome called plasmids,” says Read. “One of the plasmids contains genes that make the anthrax a lethal toxin and the other plasmid makes the capsule that enables the bacterium to escape from our immune system.” In other words, these plasmids carry the key genes for anthrax’ toxicity and virulence—they make anthrax a killer bug.

Researchers started sequencing the genome of B. anthracis in 1998. (After the bioterror attacks in 2001, they confirmed that the strain of anthrax used in the attacks, called the Ames strain, was nearly identical to the one they sequenced. But this research will probably not help authorities track down the source of the deadly anthrax used in 2001 that led to five deaths and 17 injuries.) TIGR is currently sequencing the genomes of 14 strains of anthrax to be able to identify quickly the origins of any new bioterror attacks. So far they have sequenced six of those 14. “There will be some differences between different isolates and strains,” explains Read. “But more and more, we'll actually begin to find out what those genetic differences are. This B. anthracis genome sequence can be used as sort of the basic blueprint for understanding the biology of all B. anthracis.”

New Treatments

image: NBC News
Sequencing the anthrax genome will help scientists develop new drugs and vaccines against the deadly bacterium. “The genome sequence, which actually we've been making available since 1999, has already led to the next phase of anthrax research, which is using the genome sequence and predicted genes to go in and do experiments to fully understand the biology,” says Read. “For instance, the genome sequence has enabled us to predict a lot of the proteins that might be on the surface of anthrax. You can actually take these proteins and see if these make good targets for vaccines and drugs. People have actually been doing that for a while now. Shortly, we'll start to get some viable drugs and vaccine targets from the genome sequence.”

The project was supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Department of Energy, and the United Kingdom’s Defense Sciences Technology Laboratory.

by Karen Lurie

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