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Anthrax Spores: What Makes Them Tick?

By Kate Ruder

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Anthrax spore, magnified 92,000 times.
Scientists have identified genes and proteins that the anthrax bacterium uses to make its spores, a first step on the road to making drugs and vaccines that would target these proteins and could be used to kill the bacterium in the event of a biological attack.

Anthrax spores are the particles that cause infection when people inhale them from the air. The spores survive extreme drought and cold outside the body, and can remain dormant for decades before they infect a person or animal. Tough outer layers protect the bacterium’s DNA in the core of the spore.

In new research, scientists have assembled the first comprehensive picture of how the anthrax spore forms and which proteins are prepackaged inside the spore to ensure survival. They have identified roughly 750 proteins in the anthrax spore.

“The spore loads itself with a lot of proteins for a head start in life once it’s inside the body,” says Philip C. Hanna of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.

The research will be published in the January issue of the Journal of Bacteriology and is available online.

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The study marks the first time that a DNA microarray with the whole genome of anthrax has been used to study how genes are turned on and off as the bacterium develops. The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland, sequenced the genome of the anthrax bacterium 19 months ago and then created the whole-genome microarray.

Hanna says it is too soon to speculate about which specific proteins would be best to target with drugs or which might lead to new detection tools for anthrax. But he says that the research should give scientists new directions to explore in the laboratory.

Liu, H. et al. Formation and Composition of the Bacillus anthracis Endospore. Journal of Bacteriology (Published online December 16, 2003).

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