Athens: It was just weeks following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when the deadly letters made its way into several offices of the news media and two US senators. The letters contained a virulent strain of anthrax bacteria, which killed five people and infected 17 others.
In a bid to ensuring the safety of citizens, researchers at the University of Georgia, teaming up with scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, have identified the structure of a unique cell-wall carbohydrate in B. anthracis.
The unique nature of the carbohydrate makes the molecule an important target for evaluating its role in virulence and survival of the anthrax bacterium, the development of new diagnostic tests and perhaps even as a new vaccine additive.
Anthrax is a naturally occurring animal disease. This year alone there have been several large outbreaks in animals in the U.S. and Canada, so understanding the structure of important parts of B. anthracis has a wide variety of potential applications. The new UGA research is not directly about vaccine development, and much more research needs to be done before the full potential of this unique anthrax molecule is understood.
The problems facing researchers as they unravel all the molecular riddles of anthrax are enormous. There are more than 100 known strains of B. anthracis, and one of the most virulent is called the Ames Strain. It is this strain that was mailed to victims in the fall of 2001.
Effective vaccines and antibiotics against anthrax do exist. Indeed, the federal government began Project BioShield, a $5.6 billion initiative, even before the last anthrax letter was delivered in 2001. Still, a New York Times story on September 18 reported that despite a $900 million "push to add a new anthrax vaccine to the stockpile," there have been setbacks. The Times reported that "only a small fraction of the anticipated remedies are available."
As a first step in understanding the structure and function of cell wall carbohydrates, the research team examined four Bacillus anthracis strains - Ames, Pasteur, Sterne and UT60 - and compared them to two related strains of Bacillus cereus, a soil-dwelling bacterium that causes food-borne illnesses. Cultures of these strains and the initial cell wall preparations were prepared by CDC researchers in their biosafety labs.
One important discovery in the just-reported research is that the newly discovered carbohydrate in the cell wall of B. anthracis is "species specific"; that is, of the strains tested, it was only found in the anthrax bacterium. This is one of several necessary conditions for a molecule that may be used to prepare rapid diagnostic tests for anthrax.
The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (to Carlson) and the U.S. Department of Energy (to the CCRC).