About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Anthrax Toxicity Depends on Human Genetics

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint


Anthrax courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Marcus007

The white powder that arrived in envelopes addressed to lawmakers and journalists in 2001 proved to be a deadly delivery for several people. The lethal substance—spores commonly known as Anthrax (from the bacterium Bactillus anthracis)—can cause a toxic reaction in a host’s blood stream, killing cells and leading to tissue damage,  bleeding and death.

But just how toxic anthrax is to an individual might depend on their genetic makeup, according to a new study, published online Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers found that some people’s lymphocyte cells, when exposed to a laboratory mixture of the bacterium, were less likely to die than cells of others. That difference seemed to be related to the regulation of a gene (capillary morphogenesis gene 2—or CMG2) that creates a protein on the surface of cells. This protein determines how easily the toxin can enter cells to destroy them—and lead to an “unexpectedly broad range in cellular toxin sensitivity among individuals,” wrote the researchers, led by geneticist Mikhail Martchenko at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“We already knew that infection by the same organism in different people can have very different outcomes,” David Relman, chair of the Institute of Medicine’s Forum on Microbial Threats, said in a prepared statement. “But until now it’s been very difficult to determine whether this variability was due to genetic or environmental factors.”

The researchers used cells from 234 people from African, Asian, European and North American descent whose tissues were taken for the HapMap Project, a freely available genome database. Of those cells, most fell to assaults from the anthrax bacterium. But cells from three people—of European descent—required hundreds or even thousands more times as much anthrax toxin to kill them. Furthermore, people who were closely related seemed to have similar reactions to the bacterium. The new, targeted examination—pinpointing differences in susceptibility against individuals whose genetic information is already catalogued—could make for more efficient investigations of toxins’ effects than general, genome-wide association studies.

This discovery “could lead to the development of novel treatment strategies, perhaps by blocking the interaction between the toxin and the receptor or by down-regulating its expression,” said Relman, who was not involved in the new research, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. “The findings could also provide a possible means for predicting who is likely to become seriously ill after exposure, which could be extremely useful when faced with a large number of exposed people.”

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 2 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Jabfish 10:19 pm 02/6/2012

    I think the claim here is a bit stronger than the data supports. The mutant gene helps when the cells are given straight toxin, but it makes no difference when actually given anthrax bacteria. This could just as easily mean nothing in a human because infection/disease is caused by the bacteria and not the toxin.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ASHIK 11:21 am 02/7/2012

    It is amazing some lymphocyte cells are ready to battle for evolving itself that develops resistance to die because of bacterium.I think all perfect toxin resistant cell can be synthesized in lab if treated repeatedly for short intervals in a long period of time.Study of these resistant cells(like 3/234) can unlock clues to fight these deadly diseases.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article