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Lab Vs. Courtroom: Different Definitions Of Proof

A research study published this week offers a powerful reminder of the difficulty of using cutting-edge science in the courtroom.

The study, reported in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes the genetic fingerprinting technique that the FBI relied on in its investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.

In 2008, the Justice Department was poised to indict a researcher named Bruce Ivins for committing the crime, but Ivins took his own life. A key piece of evidence tying Ivins to the anthrax attacks was a genetic match the FBI made between the anthrax bacteria in his lab and the bacterial spores found in the letters.

Fingerprinting Anthrax

To understand how the FBI made that connection between letters and lab, you have to know something about how the anthrax bacteria grow in the laboratory: "They go from one cell to nearly a billion cells overnight," says Paul Keim, a geneticist at Northern Arizona University and TGen, a nonprofit biomedical research foundation.

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