Microbiologists targeted by FBI in Anthrax scare

As anthrax began showing up at the offices of news organizations, Congress, and postal facilities in the fall, Jeffry Stock, a Princeton University microbiologist, couldn’t help but wonder if he knew the culprit.

“I was thinking, `I know some people who are strongly Muslim and have access to this kind of technology,’ ” Stock said.

Stock never acted on his musings, and ultimately dismissed the possibility that he had crossed paths with someone who had the technical expertise and temperament to pull off such a deadly crime.

But those suspicious thoughts, however short-lived, were not Stock’s alone. Other scientists at Princeton and Rutgers University have gone through the same sort of self-examination – either on their own or because they were prompted by federal investigators.

“There’s every possibility that a former student or a current student, or a former colleague or current colleague, may have been involved,” said Richard Ebright, a Rutgers microbiologist. “People have been discussing it from the beginning of October onward.”

The Washington Times has reported that the FBI has narrowed its investigation to a former U.S. government scientist now working as a contractor in the Washington, D.C., area. Federal authorities, responding to the report, denied they have identified a “prime suspect.”

The FBI, however, has said it believes that whoever is behind the anthrax attacks has a strong background in science and a connection to central New Jersey or eastern Pennsylvania, because at least four of the anthrax-containing letters were mailed from the Trenton area.

Government investigators have visited the microbiology departments of Rutgers and Princeton, even though no anthrax research is conducted there. They took samples of photocopy machines, looking for marks or imperfections on the screens that could match them to the letters, which investigators believe to be photocopies.

The FBI also asked Rutgers for the resumes of its microbiologist, said Konstantin V. Severinov, an assistant professor of genetics at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology there. The university complied, he said.

The FBI has made a direct appeal to microbiologist across the country, telling them in an e-mail three weeks ago, “It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual. … It is important to ensure that all relevant information, no matter how insignificant it may seem, is brought to the attention of investigators in this case.”

As the investigation continues, some scientists in New Jersey say they have shrugged off the FBI’s inquiries. Others admit they began looking at past and present colleagues in a different light, asking themselves – and, sometimes, each other – if they might have any names to share.

“I tried, but I didn’t come up with anybody,” said Thomas Silhavy, a Princeton microbiologist.

Ebright, the Rutgers microbiologist, said he and his colleagues were most concerned in October, when the anthrax attacks were in full swing, because they wondered if they could be the next victims.

“There’s a real concern about former students, because if you’ve given someone a bad grade, and that person is doing this, then you become a potential target yourself,” Ebright said.

Ebright, who won’t disclose what information he shared with the FBI, said the biology of growing anthrax is fairly simple, something that even an undergraduate – working with the right equipment – could do.

But converting it into a finely ground powder that easily floats through the air, Ebright said, is not a common skill for research biologists. To find someone with that knowledge, Ebright said, the FBI should look at the materials science department, which studies how various substances can be applied to industrial uses.

But Dale Niesz, a materials science professor at Rutgers, said speculation about people in his department would be fruitless. No one there works with organic material, such as microorganisms, he said.

At Princeton’s Ceramic Materials Laboratory, researcher Daniel Dabbs acknowledged “there was some reasonable speculation that a person would have to know something about particle stabilization” – one of the lab’s specialties – to turn the anthrax bacteria into a powder.

But Dabbs said the discussion never went any further.

“I don’t recall anyone ever speculating about possible perpetrators,” Dabbs said. “I think it’s hard for us to imagine someone doing that, or … being so eccentric that they would think this is a moral course to take.”

Specialization being one of the hallmarks of academia, scientists seize on disciplinary distinctions to explain why they wouldn’t know the anthrax killer. The materials scientists don’t work with organic material. The biological scientists, meanwhile, say they don’t work with anthrax.

Fred Hughson, a molecular biologist at Princeton, said he wouldn’t be much closer to the culprit than any other American. He focuses on molecules, not the much larger microbes that include the anthrax bacteria.

“I might be two steps closer, but I’m still 10 steps away,” he said. “I’m outside the circle of people who would have any expertise.”

It’s also difficult – even for something as dramatic and threatening as anthrax – to shake up the ivory tower.

Although a prominent advocate of bioweapons control visited Princeton last week and alleged in a speech that the culprit is a current or former U.S. government scientist, researchers say most of their anthrax talk has died down.

“Scientists are very focused on their projects,” said Alba J. LaFiandra, manager of laboratory services at the Center of Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, on Rutgers’ Busch campus.

LaFiandra has done her best to keep the scientists focused. When the FBI called, seeking permission to take samples from the center’s photocopy machines, she asked the agents to come after 6 p.m. – after most of the researchers had gone home.

“I didn’t want to cause a stir,” she said.

(c) 2002, The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)

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