The genome of the bacterium that causes anthrax has been sequenced. Two papers in this week's Nature compare and contrast the genetic make-up of Bacillus anthracis with that of two related nasty relatives. The results provide an insight into the biology of these pathogens, and highlight potential genetic targets for vaccine and drug design.
Claire M. Fraser of The Institute for Genomic Research, Rockville, Maryland, and The George Washington University, Washington DC, and colleagues sequenced a virulent strain of B. anthracis isolated from a Texan cow, and virtually identical to that used in the 2001 US postal attacks (pp. 81-86). They compared this to the genetic sequence of the two closest family members: Bacillus cereus, an opportunistic human microbe that causes food poisoning; and the insect pathogen Bacillus thuringiensis, used worldwide to control plant pests.
Natalia Ivanova of Integrated Genomics, Chicago, Illinois, and colleagues sequenced a different strain of B. cereus, and compared this to the unfinished sequence of the postal bioterror strain of B. anthracis (pp. 87-91).
The researchers find that B. anthracis contains an excess of genes for metabolizing proteins, compared to its closest relatives. As a result, anthrax seems to "favour a more carnivorous diet", suggesting that its ancestors may "have preyed on the dead, or living bodies of insects and other animals," comment Julian Parkhill of the Sanger Institute, Cambridge, UK, and Colin Berry of Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK, in an accompanying News and Views article. "They are constantly ready and exquisitely able to adapt to and exploit any environmental or pathogenic niche that presents itself," they add.
Claire M. Fraser
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