Mike the Mad Biologist

I’ve had serious doubts all along about the anthrax investigation, but the latest turn raises even more questions about the government’s case. According to former co-worker of Ivins’ and former USAMRIID microbacteriologist Henry Heine, the science doesn’t seem to support Ivins’ guilt (italics mine):

Heine told the panel that the most common way of growing bacteria at USAMRIID is in flasks. Based on the number of envelopes mailed out (eight to 10), the concentration of spores in the powder (10 to the 12th power spores per gram) and the number of grams of anthrax per envelope (1 to 2 grams), he calculated there were at least 10 to the 13th power anthrax spores in the attacks. Under ideal conditions, growing anthrax in a flask could produce only 10 to the 11th power spores — one hundredth of the total needed.

…The committee also asked Heine how the anthrax could have been dried into a powder. He replied that the FBI had asked him the same question in October 2001, and he said then and still thinks a lyophilizer would be the simplest way to dry large quantities of spores.

But “the idea of lyophilizing this actually scares the hell out of me, this material is so fine.” It would have contaminated the whole room when the air and moisture was vacuumed out, he said.

He said the lyophilizer at USAMRIID was not in the containment area, and if it had been used to prepare anthrax there would have been a trail of dead animals and people leading investigators to it.

USAMRIID had a speed-vac that someone could have used, but that would dry only 30 to 40 milliliters at a time.

Heine told the FBI the only other way he could think to dry the anthrax would be to use acetone, which would pull out the water.

“I have no idea what that would do to the spores and whether they’d still be viable,” he said, adding there would likely be evidence that acetone was used.

Add to that some investigatory bungling:

He said the whole investigation was filled with lies. Officials told different USAMRIID researchers their co-workers accused them of committing the attacks, just to see their reaction. They searched his vacation house and car without warrants.

They misled him about the questions they would ask him in front of a grand jury. And they tried to get him to seek a restraining order against Ivins, only days before he committed suicide, by saying Ivins had threatened to kill Heine during a group therapy session….

“At least among my closest colleagues, nobody believes Bruce did this,” he said. He thinks the FBI went after Ivins because “personality-wise, he was the weakest link.”

The real problem here is that there are very few people who are familiar with the details of anthrax production–most microbiologists, even those who have worked with other Bacillus species (including the Mad Biologist) simply don’t know the technical ins and outs needed to conduct this investigation. In many ways, this was similar to the ludicrous statements about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent biological warfare program being conducted in the back of small trucks (it was so ludicrous, any microbiologist who has worked with any Bacillus spp. would have realized it wouldn’t have worked and would have probably killed the scientists).

In the absence of factual knowledge, the Justice Department had to rely on human profiles, and so they settled on Ivins, without really comprehending if he could have done this.

Comments

  1. #1 Moopheus
    April 27, 2010

    Oh man, stuff like this just produces fodder for conspiracy theorists. If it wasn’t Ivins, and it wasn’t the other guy they previously accused, then either a) they’re trying to close the case to cover for their own inability to solve it, or b) or they’re trying to close the case to cover for someone else–and that possibility could feed endless speculation in the absence of actual facts.

    Personally, I’m kind of amazed the investigation even got this far. I mean, it’s pretty embarrassing for the government to have one of its own labs implicated in a terrorist attack, I figured they’d try to suppress the investigation.

  2. #2 hibob
    April 27, 2010

    I won’t say they did a proper investigation, or came to the right conclusion, or that I have experience growing anything other than E. coli, but …
    1. If the investigation was filled with lies, what are the chances they lied about the titer too? If it was really only 10^12 instead of 10^13, than it would only take 10 flasks: one or two runs on a normal academic lab shaker/incubator.
    2. Lyophilizers are wonderful devices for spreading the fine white powder you spent weeks making and purifying around the room – ask anyone who’s watched their product turn into a little white cyclone when someone (else, hopefully) accidentally vented the lyophilizer to air. The solution is to put a filter between the flask and the lyophilizer. Takes longer to dry down, but it could prevent contamination.

  3. #3 Rob Jase
    April 27, 2010

    Local cops lie & fake evidence.

    State cops lie & fake evidence.

    Why shouldn’t I believe federal cops don’t lie & fake evidenbce?

    As someone whose career was ruined by the local city government along with a bit of assistance by the state, all for my whistle-blowing about illegal activities, I know conspiracies to ruin people happen.

  4. #4 b
    April 28, 2010

    I’m not going to elaborate much, but I have met the special agents, heard some of the evidence, and discussed the science. The data from press descriptions seemed weak and annoyingly off Target, given the academics involved, but hearing more about it, it is stronger, which is not to say that everything makes perfect sense yet. However, I am not ready to be easily convinced by RIID former staff. They were severely disrupted by the FBI and are currently suffering due to security, etc. It is a daily humiliation and stressor, burden, shackles on honorable people… who never believed and resent the investigators.

    The FBI say they presented everything to the science press, but I have not seen adequate reporting, even in top journals. Beware.

  5. #5 katydid13
    April 29, 2010

    It actually doesn’t shock me that the government allowed its own labs to be implicated rightly or wrongly. The idea of one crazy scientist that we could have weeded out if we looked a little closer is much more comforting than the idea that just anyone could do this.

    The level of fear was really high. Security theater was at an all time high. I’m a policy analyst and I was issued a chem/bio hazard mask with my office supplies. They expired and they claim we don’t need them because of upgrades to the HVAC system.

    A crazy scientist in one of our own labs was a fairly comforting option, given what appears to be a lack of other options.