Wednesday, October 01, 2008

THE MAN WHO SAW BLACK DOTS: Annoying scientist who got anthrax analysis wrong tabbed by Nature for sake of even more annoyance

Like Science magazine, Nature has a news operation. Articles published on the news side of the peer-reviewed journal aren't peer-reviewed science, a distinction that sometimes eludes laymen.

Early this week Nature's news operation jumped into the anthrax case with a piece subtitled, "Did Bruce Ivins weaponize deadly spores?" Readers should know that, theoretically, Nature is just the place to be first with the most on anthrax. In this case, it's last with the least, adding another tedious article on whether or not the anthrax was modified to an already considerable pile chewing the subject to bits.

The last time your host dealt with the matter of the attack anthrax spores, he ended the piece with a quote from Peter Jahrling. Jahrling had been queried by David Willman of the Los Angeles Times and recanted a very damaging claim he had made about the nature of the mailed powders years ago, claiming them to be weaponized.

"I should never have ventured into this area," Jahrling told the LATimes.

How long did this reluctance last? About a week, apparently.

Readers grasp the chain of events: Famous scientist says he was all wet and professes to wishing to have butted out when making claims about the attack anthrax spores. Nature then logically returns to Jahrling, a bad source, for a story to continue the discussion on whether or not the attack spores were weaponized. That's instead of going to the scientist who consulted to the FBI and went to the trouble of trying to actually nail down where the silicon was in the anthrax.

"Under an electron microscope, Jahrling and a colleague observed black dots ..." reports Nature. That anthrax sure was special stuff: "It literally jumped off the spatula and was repelled by the weighing paper; it was like nothing I had ever seen before," Jahrling was quoted as saying.

Actually, your host used to routinely see stuff like it in research days.

Powders of biochemical preparations, including occasional small freeze-dried samples of bacteria of interest, often floated around, proving maddeningly difficult to weigh and handle. Which is why, even in the case of non-pathogens, we tended to avoid reducing bacterial suspensions to dry powders.

"The truth will come out when all the data are revealed," Jahrling gnomically tells Nature. "But there is no indication from the FBI that more data are forthcoming anytime soon," Nature gnomically informs readers.

Crawling from the woodwork

In related news, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg has joined the ranks of concerned scientists allegedly hoping to help the poor muddled boffins of the FBI get things right.

Readers may recall Rosenberg as a once-upon-a-time expert for the Federation of American Scientists, her relationship with that organization irreversibly severed when she became involved in peddling the very influential (but crank's) theory that Steven J. Hatfill was the anthrax mailer.

"An overarching question is whether Dr. Ivins could be eliminated as a suspect, or others potentially implicated, by considering other aspects of the attack anthrax itself and the procedures that could have been used to produce it," writes Rosenberg in "Comments on the anthrax investigation's scientific forensics," archived here.

"At its August 6, 2008 Press Conference the FBI released an Affidavit (4) stating that the anthrax in the NY Post and Brokaw letters contained low levels of B. subtilis, not found in the Senate anthrax or in the source anthrax at USAMRIID," writes Rosenberg. "The contaminant must have been introduced when the anthrax for the first set of letters was grown. This implies that the person who grew that anthrax was also working with B. subtilis. Bruce Ivins' work did not call for the use of B. subtilis or any other anthrax simulant. Avoidance of contamination in anthrax preparations was essential for his work in testing vaccines."

Sounds sane, not crazy. Until one reads Bruce Ivins's list of scholarly publications here.

"Immunization against anthrax with aromatic compound-dependent (Aro-) mutants of Bacillus anthracis and with recombinant strains of Bacillus subtilis that produce anthrax protective antigen," reads one of two papers with Ivins as the primary author. (Infection & Immunity. 58(2):303-8, 1990.)

Oof! Still not quite ready for prime-time, are we.

A thoughtful and very logical discussion of the anthrax case and recent developments, written by author Ed Lake, is here.


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