Meet the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis, the star of Nat Geo’s “The Hot Zone: Anthrax”.

When the Twin Towers were brought down in September 2001, the event and its aftermath dominated news cycles for a long time. In the shadow of the Al-Qaeda attack, a domestic biological weapons attack began pushing its way into the headlines. Someone was using everyday to disperse weaponized anthrax to unsuspecting victims. The Hot Zone: Anthrax, a new series on National Geographic premiering tonight, recounts the harrowing weeks when an already-scarred nation reeled from a biological weapon attack.

The Hot Zone: Anthrax follows an FBI agency named Matthew Rycker (Daniel Dae Kim) as he tracks down the terrorist responsible for sending weaponized anthrax spores through the United States Postal Service. What starts out as a manhunt for suspects connected with the Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon eventually shifts focus to domestic sources. With the help of a Bureau profiler, Rycker tracks down the culprit, who ends up being as far from Osama bin-Laden as can be.

Two cells of bacteria Bacillus anthracis causing anthrax, visible with capsules, stained with Indian Ink (CREDIT: CDC/ Courtesy of Larry Stauffer.)
This image depicts a view of a Petri dish culture plate, which contained a growth medium of sheep blood agar (SBA), and which had been inoculated with Bacillus anthracis. In this case, what you’re seeing is a positive result of what is known as a phage test, whereupon, you’ll note the diminished growth (circular area) contained within the confluent colonial growth, known as oval-shaped macroplaque, where a gamma phage suspension had been applied atop the blood agar medium. This particular culture was incubated in a carbon dioxide-free environment, at a temperature of 35 °C. (CREDIT: CDC)

As the title suggests, the true star of the Hot Zone: Anthrax is the rod-shaped bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. Its weaponized form is the dream of terrorists, rogue governments, and not so rogue governments the world over. In nature, the most common types of anthrax infections are cutaneous since the bacteria can mostly be found in the soil. The Hot Zone: Anthrax vividly shows how skin infections turn black, the result of necrotized flesh. However, the more serious types of infections involve inhaling spores so that the infection takes place internally. 

When it comes to weaponizing anthrax, the trick is to take something that is normally clumpy that causes a cutaneous disease and aerosolize it so that can be inhaled easily. Achieving that involves the purification and concentration of spores and also transforming the clumps into a fine powder. In the 1960s, a man named William C. Patrick III, chief of product development for the American biowarfare program, discovered that a certain combination of ingredients formed a handy anti-caking material which, when combined with anthrax spores, allowed the spores to separate into a fine dry mist of unagglomerated poisons. In that form, it became an almost perfect biological weapon.

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As far as weaponizing anthrax goes, strain type makes a big difference. That was clearly on display during the 1993 Aum Shinrikyo cult attack on Tokyo in which they sprayed anthrax from the top of their building, hoping to infect civilians on the street. In the end, the attack inadvertently elicited a number of complaints about a bad, unknown odor. Nobody was infected. This was because they used a strain that was not virulent.

The Ames strain of anthrax used during the 2001 attacks is the complete opposite. It was discovered to be one of the most deadly, owing to the toxin released by the bacteria. Originally, it was believed that the Ames strain originated in the Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. The lab serves as the diagnostic center for the entire nation; it is a repository for all manner of germs and diseases that afflict American livestock. So it made sense that in the early 1980s, the United States Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) wrote to the lab and asked for samples of anthrax. 

USAMRIID was formerly known as the Army Medical Unit and linked closely with the biological warfare section in Camp Detrick (now Fort Detrick). The United States had a long history of researching anthrax as a weapon, their program receiving a significant boost when it essentially absorbed Japan’s extensive biological warfare program, Unit 731. Prior to and during World War II, Japanese scientists, led by Lt. Gen. Ishii Shiro, conducted elaborate anthrax tests on prisoners of war. After the Emperor’s capitulation in 1945, Washington granted clemency to the scientists involved in war crimes in exchange for their notes and expertise. 

By 1980, American scientists had extensive experience with anthrax, weaponized and not. USAMRIID’s request for the Ames strain from the National Veterinary Services Laboratory would not have been anything out of the ordinary. In fact, the Ames strain had become fairly common, thanks to its virulence. Labs across the country often used it in order to infect animals and test out their vaccines or treatments.

However, there is a slight twist when it comes to discerning the Ames strain’s true origins. The strain was named because it was believed that the sample sent to USAMRIID came from there. It did not. The mix-up occurred because the package carrying the anthrax had a label on it with the Ames laboratory’s name and address on it. The actual address was from some place else.

A search by the Washington Post of long-forgotten Army documents finally resolved the mystery. The strain had actually come from Texas. Specifically, the bacteria was isolated by the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostics Laboratory at Texas A&M University and shipped to USAMRIID in May 1981.

With the Ames strain in the not-very-secure vaults across the country, it was disturbingly easy for anyone to access the deadly spores. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Hot Zone: Anthrax premiers Sunday, November 28 at 9/8c on National Geographic, and also streaming on Hulu.

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