Scientists as crime-fighting detectives
It happened just three weeks after the 9/11 attacks -- mysterious white powder was turning up in letters to the media and politicians in congress. The powder turned out to be deadly, the sender unknown.
The anthrax attacks ended up killing five people and alarming everyone about the threat of biological terrorism. As the FBI tackled the case, they enlisted some unexpected crime-fighters: scientists. They helped trace the powder to its origins. Among them was Claire Fraser-Liggett, director of the University of Maryland's Institute for Genome Sciences, who worked on the project while at the director of the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville.
She and her team will star in a documentary airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic, discussing how they cracked the case. Last month, PBS ran a special on NOVA and there's an online video snippet. It's a fascinating detective story that highlights the use of a new field -- forensic genomics. It's also, as Fraser-Liggett said to me in an interview recently, "really cool."
The FBI gave researchers anthrax samples to investigate, but the feds told the scientists next to nothing about the samples or the details of their investigation. The suspense was huge. Security was thick. And the entire process was pretty tense.
"We all realized this was far more serious than anything we had done before," Fraser-Liggett told me. "Not to say we aren't serious about what we do. But we got a whole lot more serious about what we were doing."
In the end, her team successfully traced the sample to its source. But I won't give away the good parts...
photo courtesy of the AP