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How Sleuths Cracked the Anthrax Mystery Via Genetic Fingerprints

One of the real anthrax letters in 2001/fbi photo

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Inside a Rockville laboratory, a team of scientists labored in round-the-clock shifts to do something many colleagues thought impossible: decode the genetic “fingerprint” of a deadly anthrax sample to help the FBI solve a case.

The researchers had been swept into Amerithrax, the massive federal investigation into the 2001 anthrax mailings, and they yearned for a breakthrough. But finding unique markers in the organism’s vast genetic code was a long shot.

The big break came in a small package: tiny test tubes, delivered by the FBI, from a military lab at Fort Detrick in Frederick, where lab workers had spotted a series of odd-looking bacteria colonies. Those oddities would help the Rockville scientists decipher the genetic signature of the anthrax used in the nation’s most serious bioterror attack.

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