Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

FBI Unveils Science Of Anthrax Investigation

Date:
August 21, 2008
Source:
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories
Summary:
Sandia researchers identified that the form of bacillus anthracis mailed in the fall of 2001 to several news media offices and to two US senators was a non-weaponized form of the spores. Five people were killed. Sandia's information was crucial in ruling out state-sponsored terrorism.

Sandia's material characterization analysts (from left to right) Joseph Michael, Paul Kotula, and manager Ray Goehner.
Credit: Photo by Randy Montoya

They have worked for almost seven years in secret.

Most people did not know that the work in Ray Goehner’s materials characterization department at Sandia National Laboratories was contributing important information to the FBI’s investigation of letters containing bacillus anthracis, the spores that cause the disease anthrax. The spores were mailed in the fall of 2001 to several news media offices and to two U.S. senators. Five people were killed.

Sandia’s work demonstrated to the FBI that the form of bacillus anthracis contained in those letters was not a weaponized form, a form of the bacteria prepared to disperse more readily. The possibility of a weaponized form was of great concern to investigators, says Joseph Michael, the principal investigator for the project. This information was crucial in ruling out state-sponsored terrorism.

In fall of 2001, the FBI considered how to best investigate the anthrax letters. The agency convened two blue ribbon exploratory panels, and Sandia’s name came up during both panels for its expertise in electron and ion microscopies and microanalysis over the range of length scales from millimeters down to nanometers. The first spore material from the letters arrived at Sandia in February of 2002.

Sandia faced some uncertainty in working on this type of investigation. Researchers signed nondisclosure agreements and agreed to make themselves available to government agencies on short notice when called to give information.

Joseph Michael, transmission electron microscopy (TEM) lab owner Paul Kotula, and a team of roughly a dozen others examined more than 200 samples in those six and a half years. They received samples from the letter delivered to the New York Post, to former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The samples looked different, in part because of how the samples were prepared, which made examination initially difficult.

When bacillus anthracis spores are weaponized, the spores are coated with silica nanoparticles that look almost like lint under the microscope. The “lint” makes the particles “bouncier” and less likely to clump and fall to the ground. That makes the spores more respirable and able to do more damage, says Michael. Weaponization of the spores would be an indicator of state sponsored terrorism.

“Initially, scanning electron microscopy [SEM] conducted at another laboratory, showed high silicon and oxygen signals that led them to conclude that the spores were a weaponized form, says Kotula. “The possible misinterpretation of the SEM results arose because microanalysis in the SEM is not a surface-sensitive tool,” says Kotula. “Because a spore body can be 1.5 to 2 microns wide by 1 micron long, a SEM cannot localize the elemental signal from whole spore bodies.”

Using more sensitive transmission electron microscopy (TEM), Kotula and Michael’s research indicated that the silica in the spore samples was not added artificially, but was incorporated as a natural part of the spore formation process. “The spores we examined,” Kotula says, “lacked that fuzzy outer coating that would indicate that they’d been weaponized.”

Sandia’s work was the first to actually link the spore material in the New York Post, the Daschle and the Leahy letters. The elemental signatures and the locations of these signatures, while not indicating intentional weaponization, did show that the spores were indistinguishable and therefore likely came from the same source. That conclusion was corroborated a few years later by the DNA studies.

The materials characterization lab serves as a materials analysis resource for a diverse collection of projects. The lab plays an important role in stockpile surveillance, supporting Sandia’s nuclear weapons mission.

Michael was recently released from his nondisclosure agreement and flown to Washington, D.C., to participate in press conferences at FBI Headquarters along with several members of research teams who’d been asked to examine other aspects of the anthrax case.

The FBI was pleased with Sandia’s work, says Michael.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by DOE/Sandia National Laboratories. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories. "FBI Unveils Science Of Anthrax Investigation." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 August 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080821164603.htm>.
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories. (2008, August 21). FBI Unveils Science Of Anthrax Investigation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 31, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080821164603.htm
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories. "FBI Unveils Science Of Anthrax Investigation." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/08/080821164603.htm (accessed July 31, 2014).

Share This




More Matter & Energy News

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Britain Testing Driverless Cars on Roadways

Britain Testing Driverless Cars on Roadways

AP (July 30, 2014) British officials said on Wednesday that driverless cars will be tested on roads in as many as three cities in a trial program set to begin in January. Officials said the tests will last up to three years. (July 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Amid Drought, UCLA Sees Only Water

Amid Drought, UCLA Sees Only Water

AP (July 30, 2014) A ruptured 93-year-old water main left the UCLA campus awash in 8 million gallons of water in the middle of California's worst drought in decades. (July 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow

Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow

AP (July 30, 2014) Smartphone powered paper airplane that was popular on crowdfunding website KickStarter makes its debut at Wisconsin airshow (July 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
U.K. To Allow Driverless Cars On Public Roads

U.K. To Allow Driverless Cars On Public Roads

Newsy (July 30, 2014) Driverless cars could soon become a staple on U.K. city streets, as they're set to be introduced to a few cities in 2015. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

    Environment News

    Technology News



    Save/Print:
    Share:

    Free Subscriptions


    Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

    Get Social & Mobile


    Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

    Have Feedback?


    Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
    Mobile: iPhone Android Web
    Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
    Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
    Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins