The Ames strain: What's in a name?

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By Kate O'Rourke

When anthrax claimed its first victim in Florida, and investigators announced that the culprit was the "Ames strain," Iowa State University became a victim of another kind: erroneous reporting.

Early news reports claimed that the anthrax sample was stolen from an ISU laboratory. The faulty reports brought media representatives of 60 publications, including almost every major U.S. newspaper, and a half dozen TV outlets, swarming to ISU. Not only were media outlets wrong about the theft, however, ISU didn't even currently have the strain.

The Ames strain has been traced to an anthrax culture sent from the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in 1980. The Army identified it as a separate strain and named it "Ames."

Dr. David Miller, director of the Bacterial Identification Section at NVSL, says that records do not indicate where the NVSL obtained the 1980 anthrax sample. Iowa State University records are also nondefinitive.

"The strain could have come from Iowa State," says Lorraine Hoffman, PhD, a professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine at ISU. "We had a couple of isolates in 1979 and they were sent to NVSL. But we didn't have any isolates in 1980." It's possible, says Dr. Hoffman, that the 1979 isolates were held over at NVSL until 1980, sent to USAMRIID, and that these were named Ames.

Regardless of whether ISU first isolated Ames, however, reporters soon learned that ISU could not have been involved in the Florida attack. According to Dr. Norman F. Cheville, dean of the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine, the college did not possess the Ames strain at the time of the attack.

During the fall of 2001, the university had stored anthrax strains, but theirs were cultures of historical interest. "There was no research project associated with these strains," Dr. Cheville said. "The cultures were not a laboratory strain and certainly not the Ames strain."

After weathering the media storm, ISU decided to destroy the strains because of a waning faculty interest in the cultures. "No one here wished to follow through, in a historic sense, with passing these cultures into the next century," Dr. Cheville commented. "For public purposes, we felt that this was an appropriate way to demonstrate our commitment to animal health and safety."