Chapter: Biotechnology Applying the Genetic Revolution: Biowarfare and Bioterrorism

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Anthrax

Anthrax is a virulent disease of cattle that infects humans quite easily. It is caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis , which is relatively easy to culture and forms spores, which can survive harsh conditions that would kill most bacteria.

ANTHRAX

Anthrax is a virulent disease of cattle that infects humans quite easily. It is caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis , which is relatively easy to culture and forms spores, which can survive harsh conditions that would kill most bacteria. The spores may lie dormant in the soil for years and then germinate on contact with a suitable animal victim. Three main forms of the disease occur. Cutaneous anthrax, that is, infection of the skin, is rarely dangerous. Inhalational anthrax , in which the spores enter via the lungs, gives a high death rate. Gastrointestinal anthrax is relatively rare and occurs from ingestion of bacteria or spores, mostly by eating contaminated meat. Two major toxins are responsible for the symptoms of anthra, genes carried on the plasmid pOX1 encode the toxins. In some ways, anthrax is the ideal biological weapon—lethal, highly infectious, and cheap to produce, with spores that store well.

The problem with anthrax is that the spores are so tough and long-lived that getting rid of them after hostilities are over is almost impossible. During World War II the British tested anthrax (using sheep as the targets) on the tiny island of Gruinard, which lies off the coast of Scotland. Although it was fire-bombed and disinfected, the island remained uninhabitable because of anthrax spores still surviving in the soil until 1987, when it was treated with seawater and formaldehyde.

The germ warfare facility of the now-defunct Soviet Union is supposed to have concentrated on anthrax and smallpox. For the Soviet Union, a nation that had vast expanses of thinly populated land, anthrax was a good choice for defense against possible intrusion by massively overpopulated Asian neighbors such as China or India.


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