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Dr. Paul Keim is a professor of biological sciences at Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, where his research program focuses on microbial forensics and the genomic analysis of pathogenic bacteria. As an expert in Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium responsible for anthrax, Dr. Keim participated in the FBI’s investigation into the anthrax letter attacks back in 2001.
Microbial forensics is a field that developed in response to the twin threats of biological warfare and biological terrorism. (What’s the difference between biological warfare and biological terrorism? Both have the potential to reach beyond the site of the attack and both are a menace to innocent, unarmed citizens. To me, there’s a fine line here. But I digress.)
Dr. Keim’s interest in microbial forensics arose out of his postdoctoral work at the University of Utah. After this training in phage recombination and genomics, Dr. Keim applied what he had learned about bacterial genetics in a collaboration with scientists working on resolving and identifying the various strains of B. anthracis. Fast forward to this past summer, when the F.B.I. revealed that Dr. Keim used his expertise on B. anthracis to help in the investigation that concluded a researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) perpetrated the anthrax attacks. Dr. Keim, along with several other scientists who helped in the F.B.I.’s
investigation, will be speaking at ASM’s Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting in Baltimore in February, where they’ll present the facts about their contributions to the criminal investigation.
In this podcast, I talked with Dr. Keim about his work with the F.B.I., whether the payoffs of bioterrorism research are worth the costs, and about how the plague (yes, the Black Death) made its way to North American shores and continues to sicken about a dozen people every year.