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Microscopy and the Anthrax Attacks

Posted August 22, 2008 1:37 PM by Steve Melito

In the fall of 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) convened two blue-ribbon panels to determine how to best investigate a series of anthrax attacks. Letters containing bacillus anthracis, the spores that cause the disease anthrax, had been mailed to several news-media outlets and two U.S. senators. Five people died and 17 others were infected with a disease which, in its inhalational form, begins with cold or flu-like symptoms and eventually causes severe breathing problems.

A Matter of National Security

Still reeling from the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the FBI needed answers. Did the anthrax letters contain a weaponized form of bacillus anthracis, a naturally-occurring bacterium whose spores live in the soil and remain viable for decades? If so, did the anthrax letters provide proof of state-sponsored terrorism, or indicate that Al-Qaeda was capable of producing biological weapons? For answers to these questions, the FBI turned to Sandia National Laboratories of Albuquerque, New Mexico. A multi-program program facility, Sandia is renowned for its expertise in electron microscopy.

Silicon and Oxygen Signals

In February 2002, the first spore materials arrived at Sandia Labs. During the next six and a half years, a team of researchers examined over 200 samples. Material characterization analysts Joseph Michael, Paul Kotula, and Ray Goehner played especially important roles. After signing non-disclosure agreements (NDA) and receiving briefings from the FBI, the trio reviewed scanning electron microscopy (SEM) studies about the spores from another laboratory. These initial tests had revealed high silicon and oxygen signals – signs that the bacillus anthracis spores had been intentionally weaponized.

SEM and TEM

Seven years later and now released from their NDAs, the Sandia scientists described why they reversed these first findings. "The possible misinterpretation of the SEM results," Paul Kotula explained, "arose because SEM microanalysis is not a surface-sensitive tool". When anthrax is weaponized, B. anthracis is coated with lint-like silica nanoparticles that make the spores more respirable. Although "SEM cannot localize the elemental signal from whole spore bodies" with dimensions as small as 1 micron, Kotula explained, transmission electron microscopy (TEM) could.

Follow the Nanoparticles

With TEM, a beam of electrons is passed through a specimen that has been stained with phosphotungstic acid in order to block some electrons and form a "negative" image. The electrons then strike a platform that is covered with a substance that fluoresces, producing a glowing image which is then magnified by a light microscope. Using TEM, materials analysts from Sandia Labs determined that the silica in the anthrax spore samples had been incorporated as a natural-part of the spore formation process. "The spores we examined," Kotula noted, "lacked that fuzzy outer coating that would indicate that they'd been weaponized.

Later, DNA studies of the spores from the anthrax letters corroborated the Sandia studies.

Resources:

http://www.sandia.gov/news/resources/releases/2008/anthrax.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_anthrax_attacks

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacillus_anthracis

http://www.drjreid.com/phage_vocab.htm

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Guru

Join Date: Dec 2006
Location: Germany 49° 26' N, 7° 46' O
Posts: 1950
Good Answers: 109
#1

Re: Microscopy and the Anthrax Attacks

08/23/2008 11:30 AM

Hi Moose,

this question would have been easy to solve with a very specialised tool existing at

http://www.ifos.uni-kl.de/

Unfortunately their website is in German only.

But if you like information and phone Dr.Kopnarski he is open to any discussion.

The instrument I am talking about is a SNMS mass spectroscopy coupled to a SEM.

(In SNMS in contrary to SIMS the N stands for Neutral in contrary to Ion)..

So they can do an elemental analysis of any pixel of the SEM image. So any Si or /and O that is in the surface only will be seen.

Limits of this instrument better to be discussed with the owners and operators.

RHABE

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Guru
United States - Member - New Member Technical Fields - Technical Writing - New Member Popular Science - Weaponology - Organizer Hobbies - Target Shooting - New Member Engineering Fields - Nuclear Engineering - New Member

Join Date: Mar 2005
Posts: 3464
Good Answers: 32
#2
In reply to #1

Re: Microscopy and the Anthrax Attacks

09/02/2008 9:01 AM

Thanks, RHABE. Do you know if Dr. Kopnarski speaks English? Unfortunately, my knowledge of German ends at "Guten Morgen".

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Guru

Join Date: Dec 2006
Location: Germany 49° 26' N, 7° 46' O
Posts: 1950
Good Answers: 109
#3
In reply to #2

Re: Microscopy and the Anthrax Attacks

09/02/2008 1:38 PM

I think he can, just try, if there are difficulties you can send the inquiry to me and I will ask them.

We are not in regular contact but know each other and help if we can and he is always helpful with his possibilities.

RHABE

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Anonymous Poster
#4

Re: Microscopy and the Anthrax Attacks

06/13/2009 4:02 AM

As you may know, my CASE CLOSED blog has turned into a forum for widespread discussion of the actual anthrax case. I have been seeking answers to questions posed to the FBI by Congress. Yesterday, I finally received those answers, which I found to be insulting and demeaning to the Congress and to the American people. The questions, the answers, and my comments are posted on my blog at ... http://caseclosedbylewweinstein.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/the-fbis-answers-to-questions-posed-by-members-of-the-house-judiciary-committee-in-september-2008-as-to-certain-aspects-of-the-fbi's-investigation-of-the-2001-anthrax-attacks-are-insulting/ LEW WEINSTEIN

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