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News Article | April 25, 2017
Site: www.sciencedaily.com

A team of international researchers has found that a strain of anthrax-causing bacterium thought to have been viable 80 years after a thwarted World War I espionage attack, was, in reality, a much younger standard laboratory strain. The team speculates that the mix-up was due to commonplace laboratory contamination. The study, published this week in mBio®, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, highlights the advances in genomic sequencing that now enable precise tracking of bacterial strains used in biological warfare and terrorist attacks around the world. "Historically, there have always been bacterial strain mix-ups in the course of doing research," says Paul Keim, executive director of The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and senior author on the current study. "But now that we have the molecular tools, we can do the quality control on strain collections to figure out exactly what they contain." The current study helps debunk the claim that a World War I biological weapon containing anthrax-causing spores was still viable 80 years later. In 1917, German spy Baron Otto von Rosen was caught in Norway possessing lumps of sugar embedded with glass capillaries filled with a liquid holding spores of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. He was suspected of plotting to feed the sugar lumps, which contained the oldest known isolates of B. anthracis, to the reindeer that pulled transports of munitions and foods across the frozen Arctic tundra for the Allied forces. The poison-laced sugar remained in a Norwegian police museum until 1997, when it was sent to what is now known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down, United Kingdom. Researchers there used DNA amplification to determine that the agent inside the tiny glass tubes was indeed B. anthracis. After some extensive laboratory coaxing, they next cultured and isolated four colonies grown from the liquid inside the tubes. In a 1998 Nature paper, they declared that they had revived the anthrax bacterial strain that had spent 8 decades as spores. However, DNA sequencing of entire organism's genome was in its infancy at this time, so the exact genetic identity of the strain was never defined. In 2001, Keim was tapped to help investigate the anthrax-containing letters mailed by a terrorist across the US. At the request of the FBI, Keim's team categorized all known anthrax-causing strains, which included the Porton Down 'sugar' samples and other samples from around the world. At that time, Keim noted a very close genetic similarity between the Porton Down strains and what had become the standard laboratory reference strain used in experiments and vaccine development, known as the Ames Ancestor strain. Amidst the urgency of pinning down which strain was used in the letters -- it turned out to be the Ames strain -- he forgot about the strange similarity. "As we learned more and more about the Ames strain, it became obvious that it had to be a contaminant," in the Porton Down samples, says Keim. Then, at a 2013 conference, he was approached by German biodefense researchers, who had sequenced what they thought was the original German spy's strain. They too had noticed its genetic resemblance to the Ames strain. Working in tandem, Keim's Arizona team and Herman Meyer and Markus Antwerpen at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich, sequenced the strains using next-generation sequencing (NGS), a technique that allowed them to analyze every genetic difference at the level of single letter changes to the genetic code. It also allows them to sequence a strain's entire genome, not just a handful of times, like the previous technology used in 2001, but 100 times over. The new technology also costs about 10,000 times less per genome sequenced. Both labs confirmed that the Porton Down 'sugar' strains differed by only two genetic letters from the Ames Ancestor strain -- a near identical matching. The researchers speculate that during the intense culturing attempts of the sugar samples in 1997, spores from the Ames Ancestor strain, which were likely to be abundant in the Porton Down military defense laboratory facilities, fell into the culture media and grew. Two of the original Porton Down researchers, Martin Pearce and Caroline Redmond, collaborated on this new study to confirm that indeed, a likely contamination event threw off their results. "That work has been cited many times as evidence that spores can survive in liquid for 80 years -- and now that's clearly not true," says Keim, leaving it an open question of just how long B. anthracis spores can survive and still cause disease. "But their first finding that the capillary tube did include B. anthracis DNA was a solid result," says Keim. Unfortunately, none of the 1917 sample remains to be completely sequenced using today's technology. But how do the new study's authors know their work is not suffering from contamination, as well? "It was independently verified by two different labs, working on two different continents," says Keim, a strong argument against contamination. The work also showcases the important role that NGS can play in the quality control monitoring of bacterial strain repositories around the world -- to ensure that strains being used in experiments are truly what researchers think they are and to catch strain contamination when it happens.


News Article | April 25, 2017
Site: www.eurekalert.org

Washington, DC - April 25, 2017 -A team of international researchers has found that a strain of anthrax-causing bacterium thought to have been viable 80 years after a thwarted World War I espionage attack, was, in reality, a much younger standard laboratory strain. The team speculates that the mix-up was due to commonplace laboratory contamination. The study, published this week in mBio®, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, highlights the advances in genomic sequencing that now enable precise tracking of bacterial strains used in biological warfare and terrorist attacks around the world. "Historically, there have always been bacterial strain mix-ups in the course of doing research," says Paul Keim, executive director of The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and senior author on the current study. "But now that we have the molecular tools, we can do the quality control on strain collections to figure out exactly what they contain." (image: Bacillus anthracis bacteria using Gram-stain technique. credit: CDC) The current study helps debunk the claim that a World War I biological weapon containing anthrax-causing spores was still viable 80 years later. In 1917, German spy Baron Otto von Rosen was caught in Norway possessing lumps of sugar embedded with glass capillaries filled with a liquid holding spores of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. He was suspected of plotting to feed the sugar lumps, which contained the oldest known isolates of B. anthracis, to the reindeer that pulled transports of munitions and foods across the frozen Arctic tundra for the Allied forces. The poison-laced sugar remained in a Norwegian police museum until 1997, when it was sent to what is now known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down, United Kingdom. Researchers there used DNA amplification to determine that the agent inside the tiny glass tubes was indeed B. anthracis. After some extensive laboratory coaxing, they next cultured and isolated four colonies grown from the liquid inside the tubes. In a 1998 Nature paper, they declared that they had revived the anthrax bacterial strain that had spent 8 decades as spores (Ref 1). However, DNA sequencing of entire organism's genome was in its infancy at this time, so the exact genetic identity of the strain was never defined. In 2001, Keim was tapped to help investigate the anthrax-containing letters mailed by a terrorist across the US. At the request of the FBI, Keim's team categorized all known anthrax-causing strains, which included the Porton Down 'sugar' samples and other samples from around the world. At that time, Keim noted a very close genetic similarity between the Porton Down strains and what had become the standard laboratory reference strain used in experiments and vaccine development, known as the Ames Ancestor strain. Amidst the urgency of pinning down which strain was used in the letters--it turned out to be the Ames strain--he forgot about the strange similarity. "As we learned more and more about the Ames strain, it became obvious that it had to be a contaminant," in the Porton Down samples, says Keim. Then, at a 2013 conference, he was approached by German biodefense researchers, who had sequenced what they thought was the original German spy's strain. They too had noticed its genetic resemblance to the Ames strain. Working in tandem, Keim's Arizona team and Herman Meyer and Markus Antwerpen at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich, sequenced the strains using next-generation sequencing (NGS), a technique that allowed them to analyze every genetic difference at the level of single letter changes to the genetic code. It also allows them to sequence a strain's entire genome, not just a handful of times, like the previous technology used in 2001, but 100 times over. The new technology also costs about 10,000 times less per genome sequenced. Both labs confirmed that the Porton Down 'sugar' strains differed by only two genetic letters from the Ames Ancestor strain--a near identical matching. The researchers speculate that during the intense culturing attempts of the sugar samples in 1997, spores from the Ames Ancestor strain, which were likely to be abundant in the Porton Down military defense laboratory facilities, fell into the culture media and grew. Two of the original Porton Down researchers, Martin Pearce and Caroline Redmond, collaborated on this new study to confirm that indeed, a likely contamination event threw off their results. "That work has been cited many times as evidence that spores can survive in liquid for 80 years--and now that's clearly not true," says Keim, leaving it an open question of just how long B. anthracis spores can survive and still cause disease. "But their first finding that the capillary tube did include B. anthracis DNA was a solid result," says Keim. Unfortunately, none of the 1917 sample remains to be completely sequenced using today's technology. But how do the new study's authors know their work is not suffering from contamination, as well? "It was independently verified by two different labs, working on two different continents," says Keim, a strong argument against contamination. The work also showcases the important role that NGS can play in the quality control monitoring of bacterial strain repositories around the world--to ensure that strains being used in experiments are truly what researchers think they are and to catch strain contamination when it happens. The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society, composed of over 48,000 scientists and health professionals. ASM's mission is to promote and advance the microbial sciences. ASM advances the microbial sciences through conferences, publications, certifications and educational opportunities. It enhances laboratory capacity around the globe through training and resources. It provides a network for scientists in academia, industry and clinical settings. Additionally, ASM promotes a deeper understanding of the microbial sciences to diverse audiences.


News Article | May 4, 2017
Site: www.theengineer.co.uk

Changing times are difficult for everyone to adjust to, but for the defence and security sectors – charged with protecting the safety of the nation – some aspects of change are more difficult than others. The participants in The Engineer’s recent roundtable on innovation in the defence sector explained that the accelerating pace of technology development is a cause for much potential anxiety. Panellists Alex Caccia CEO, Animal Dynamics Prof David Delpy Chair, Defence Scientific Advisory Council Jon Excell Editor, The Engineer Heather Goldstraw Director of Technology Delivery, DE&S, Ministry of Defence Chris Guyott Engineering Director, Frazer-Nash Consultancy Rob Solly Acting Head of the Defence and Security Accelerator Nick Wills Business Development Director, Motorsport Industry Association Andy Wright Director of Strategic Technology, BAE Systems In past decades, the defence sector has enjoyed a position of primacy in innovation. It was at the forefront of technology development, and its inventions were often adapted to cascade down to the civilian sector. But this is no longer the case. Alex Caccia, Animal DynamicsAnimal Dynamics CEO Alex Caccia noted that his company’s development of small drones that mimic the flight capabilities of insects depends to a large extent on the availability of technologies – in particular, the sensors, used in mobile phones – that until recently were prohibitively expensive. This, he said, is both an opportunity for his company and a threat to others. “For example, there’s a chip issued by Texas Instruments called a sensor tag that contains every kind of sensor you can lay your hands on, and it costs about $17. Ten years ago it would be in the hundreds of thousands. That opens up a set of possibilities to develop more sinister applications for very small budgets. We need to develop the capability to offset that.” Prof David Delpy summarised one aspect of the changing times by stating that while once the defence sector could effectively control access to technology this is no longer the case. “To be honest you can’t control anything now,” he said. “Anyone can build anything and if you can’t build it yourself you’ll find someone on the internet who will build it for you.” The defence roundtable chewed over the industry’s biggest issuesThe MoD’s Heather Goldstraw said that there still remains a culture within the defence sector that it has to be a leader in technology and not a follower. But this can be counter-productive, she added, because it means the sector risks missing out on possibly useful technologies developed for other industries. “We are now identifying where people have similar problems: oil and gas has similar challenges to some parts of defence, so has transport and telecommunications, medical and education, simulation, training and modelling.” She went on to highlight the other challenges facing the sector. “We have to be more systemic. Because, now, everything is a challenge,” she said. “Money is a challenge, emerging threats are a challenge, being more sustainable is a challenge, looking after the environment and contributing to the economy is a challenge. We need to innovate on all of those fronts.” The MoD is in the unique position as the main buyer for most of the defence technology developed in (or for) the UK. Goldstraw observed that much of the time this is in response to threats and opportunities, as it always has been. “There are both changing threats and proliferation of threats,” she said. “The secretary of state for defence is clear that we have resurgent Russia but at the same time we have Daesh – so-called Islamic State – and unpredictable insurgent-type threats. We have to be able to cope with both.” Similarities with transport As an example of how defence needs to draw on other sectors, Goldstraw pointed out that one of the often-ignored aspects of the sector is that it operates very large fleets of vehicles, and therefore has much in common with the transport sector (not a parallel that would tend to occur to many people, she ventured). “We are looking at a number of things that are already well established in the transport sector to make vehicles more fuel-efficient, for example,” she said. Goldstraw also pointed out an aspect of innovation that will be familiar to many readers of The Engineer: it’s not just about technology. “To me innovation is about the exploitation of ideas; and they can be process or service ideas. We need to become more agile, much more able to respond to threats and opportunities; whether it’s through tactics and training, or different intelligence and information, so we change what we do and how and where we actually deploy, or if it’s being able to very rapidly roll out a counter to a particular threat.” In part, she said, this means being able to look at other sectors and realise that they face similar problems. “We need to be able to embrace new suppliers, new technologies, through our commercial models, through the way we acquire, through building our supply chains, through building links with other sectors, and not just the traditional defence trade associations.” Chris Guyott, engineering director of Frazer-Nash Consultancy, said that other sectors of industry tend to find it easier to innovate because they don’t typically have to deal with the shear breadth of challenges that the defence sector faces. “Other sectors can often organise themselves a little bit more readily to get on and do it. They’re trying to solve detailed problems that are relevant to them. That’s a little bit easier because you’re solving a focused problem.” Despite this, Guyott said he has come across a number of examples of other sectors borrowing innovative approaches from the defence industry. One major influence, he said, has been on the rail sector, which has based much of its approach to safety management and how to understand risks and hazards on lessons learned from defence. Andy Wright, BAE SystemsLearning from motorsport Nevertheless, technology now tends to flow in the opposite direction. And of all the sectors that the world of defence can learn from, motorsport – a harsh and demanding industry with short timescales and hard deadlines – is perhaps one of the most interesting examples. “Everybody in our environment is constantly in a state of trying to catch up and get ahead,” said Nick Wills, who leads the Motorsport Industry Association’s efforts to build relationships in defence. “This drives a behaviour, a performance and a mind state among the engineers that work there that is different compared to other sectors. How you can bring that to bear on problems outside of just being at the front of the grid is something that a number of the top-end motorsport engineering companies are now bringing to the market.” Some of the time, this common ground can be a positive advantage for the sector. Andy Wright of BAE Systems observed that one problem is that it is difficult to describe problems faced by the sector, because in doing so weaknesses in the UK’s ability to respond to certain situations is revealed. “We worked on programmes called Aladdin and Orchid that were about getting information around a battlespace, but we asked them to work on disaster recovery as an analogy to that,” he explained. Left to right: Nick Wills, Motorsport Industry Association; Rob Solly, Defence and Security Accelerator; Chris Guyott, Frazer-Nash Consultancy; David Delpy, Defence Scientific Advisory CouncilWright said that one of the advantages of the defence sector is that it has an abundance of hard problems, and because these tend to stretch the capabilities of technology they are inherently a strong spur to technology development. Alex Caccia went even further: “What’s been very interesting for me… is being presented with a very specific, very hard problem that is not in the civil domain. There isn’t a requirement for, in our instance, a gust-tolerant, tiny drone. The fact that the problem is so extreme has forced us to think about problems we would never have thought about before.” Animal Dynamics’ work on its Skeeter drone, which is based on a dragonfly, has led to the development of technologies that would otherwise have not been necessary, he added. “To make Skeeter work we had to design a new kind of motor because we had to get the power-to-weight ratio really high and the coulomb losses down really low. We now find all sorts of applications for that because the requirement is so extreme; and it wouldn’t be extreme were it not a military requirement.” UAV innovations UAVs have already led to important process innovations in defence, Goldstraw said. “The current nano-UAV capability that Skeeter is looking to build on came out of experimentation in urban combat, where you have to face problems such as seeing around corners and over walls. How you engage in an urban environment is very different from the environment our equipment was developed for. “Black Hornet was a nano-UAV the team spotted on YouTube in 2009, we invited the developers to engage with us and, after further development, it was trialled by the army in 2011, which gave it the evidence to raise an urgent operational requirement – UOR. It was in the field in Afghanistan within 12 months following a competition and some minor development. The big innovation with Black Hornet was it put that surveillance and intelligence in the hands of the unit on the ground rather than relying on larger surveillance assets sent from further away or having to send men forward to check areas. It changed the traditional methods of disseminating that information and who was making the decisions on intelligence gathering.” The DSTL’s Defence and Security Accelerator is facing similar issues, Rob Solly said, citing an example in the overlap between defence and medical technologies. “We’ve been working with the University of Strathclyde to develop a very simple device so that when a serviceman is injured and losing a lot of blood, that blood can be salvaged and returned back to their body rather than having to rely on large amounts of donated blood. We’ve helped it find a commercial partner and that will lead to off-the-shelf technology. Who’s going to buy it? You can see that front-line ambulance staff could benefit enormously from this.” Heather Goldstraw, Ministry of DefenceThe reluctance of some companies to work with the defence sector is an issue, Goldstraw acknowledged. The sector still has special requirements that some companies find difficult to meet. “Sometimes defence does have to worry very much more than other sectors when making its procurement that things are safe, reliable, compatible and secure,” Goldstraw said. “We know that isn’t cheap or easy and for an SME to meet defence standards, volumes and quality may be a real challenge for them, but we are constantly looking at ways to make it easier for these companies to do business with us by challenging our standards and adopting new contract models where we can. “The biggest challenge we have is not unique to defence at all; it’s understanding supply chain and how acquisition can be continually improved to reflect the market,” said Goldstraw. “When we use a prime contract model, we as an organisation do not directly buy subsystems, components or materials, we buy products or systems that give us military capability. So potential new suppliers might have a fantastic idea, but it might need to be targeted at someone lower down in the supply chain, not directly at the MoD. The oil and gas and transport sectors have similar issues as procurers of large and complex systems.” Start-up difficulties Alex Caccia agreed, highlighting another difficulty. “What’s missing is an understanding of at what point a start-up has to engage with regulators and standards, and it’s a lot earlier than you think,” he said. “The industry’s very stratified: it appears to be very big companies at one end and very small ones at the other. The venture capital industry doesn’t back technology risk or business in the phase of technology, so you need to get beyond just having the MoD as a customer. Building the company is a delicate process because it requires business and technology knowledge.” One effect of this, he explained, is that it can be very difficult for companies to grow. “When most of your income is from research grants, they tend to be squeezed so much that there’s no money left over to grow the company,” he said. But this is often not the case when dealing with government. “A normal commercial relationship is a zero-sum game, and it’s not when you’re dealing with government. There’s an interest in our business succeeding, albeit as long as our success aids our partners’ success.” Andy Wright quoted another example. “We’ve invested in a company called Intelligent Textiles. It’s a small business that’s invented a novel textile that allows you to transmit data through a textile rather than with wires. The need for that is to allow a soldier to plug in all their devices without wires trailing everywhere, but the impact is potentially much broader. It had a really good idea but the cost point was too high, it couldn’t sell it; so we worked with the company to drive down the cost.” The business has since expanded and is now moving into new premises in Lancashire. The Defence and Security Accelerator The Defence and Security Accelerator brings together staff from the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and Defence Equipment and Support (DES). It aims to fund proof-of-concept research in the defence and security sector, taking its funded research towards implementation and market exploitation, and to open up the daunting and sometimes hard-to-access sector to a wide range of organisations, with particular emphasis on SMEs. Launched in December 2016, the Accelerator operates a programme called Enduring Challenge, with £6m annual funding, which aims to provide a route into the sector for organisations that have had no contact with the sector before. In part, according to the MoD, this is a response to the impossibility of knowing all developments that might be relevant, in terms of technology, business processes and training. Typically, the programme provides funding of £50,000-£90,000 for work of up to nine months’ duration. It operates in nine areas: protection, situational awareness, power, communications, data, lethality, mobility, human performance, and lower cost of ownership. It operates in monthly assessment cycles, with feedback given to applicants shortly after the closing date of each cycle. Organisations wishing to apply to the accelerator should click here. CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT SOME OF THE PROJECTS THE ACCELERATOR HAS HELPED DEVELOP


The study, published this week in mBio, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, highlights the advances in genomic sequencing that now enable precise tracking of bacterial strains used in biological warfare and terrorist attacks around the world. "Historically, there have always been bacterial strain mix-ups in the course of doing research," says Paul Keim, executive director of The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and senior author on the current study. "But now that we have the molecular tools, we can do the quality control on strain collections to figure out exactly what they contain." The current study helps debunk the claim that a World War I biological weapon containing anthrax-causing spores was still viable 80 years later. In 1917, German spy Baron Otto von Rosen was caught in Norway possessing lumps of sugar embedded with glass capillaries filled with a liquid holding spores of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. He was suspected of plotting to feed the sugar lumps, which contained the oldest known isolates of B. anthracis, to the reindeer that pulled transports of munitions and foods across the frozen Arctic tundra for the Allied forces. The poison-laced sugar remained in a Norwegian police museum until 1997, when it was sent to what is now known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down, United Kingdom. Researchers there used DNA amplification to determine that the agent inside the tiny glass tubes was indeed B. anthracis. After some extensive laboratory coaxing, they next cultured and isolated four colonies grown from the liquid inside the tubes. In a 1998 Nature paper, they declared that they had revived the anthrax bacterial strain that had spent 8 decades as spores (Ref 1). However, DNA sequencing of entire organism's genome was in its infancy at this time, so the exact genetic identity of the strain was never defined. In 2001, Keim was tapped to help investigate the anthrax-containing letters mailed by a terrorist across the US. At the request of the FBI, Keim's team categorized all known anthrax-causing strains, which included the Porton Down 'sugar' samples and other samples from around the world. At that time, Keim noted a very close genetic similarity between the Porton Down strains and what had become the standard laboratory reference strain used in experiments and vaccine development, known as the Ames Ancestor strain. Amidst the urgency of pinning down which strain was used in the letters—it turned out to be the Ames strain—he forgot about the strange similarity. "As we learned more and more about the Ames strain, it became obvious that it had to be a contaminant," in the Porton Down samples, says Keim. Then, at a 2013 conference, he was approached by German biodefense researchers, who had sequenced what they thought was the original German spy's strain. They too had noticed its genetic resemblance to the Ames strain. Working in tandem, Keim's Arizona team and Herman Meyer and Markus Antwerpen at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich, sequenced the strains using next-generation sequencing (NGS), a technique that allowed them to analyze every genetic difference at the level of single letter changes to the genetic code. It also allows them to sequence a strain's entire genome, not just a handful of times, like the previous technology used in 2001, but 100 times over. The new technology also costs about 10,000 times less per genome sequenced. Both labs confirmed that the Porton Down 'sugar' strains differed by only two genetic letters from the Ames Ancestor strain—a near identical matching. The researchers speculate that during the intense culturing attempts of the sugar samples in 1997, spores from the Ames Ancestor strain, which were likely to be abundant in the Porton Down military defense laboratory facilities, fell into the culture media and grew. Two of the original Porton Down researchers, Martin Pearce and Caroline Redmond, collaborated on this new study to confirm that indeed, a likely contamination event threw off their results. "That work has been cited many times as evidence that spores can survive in liquid for 80 years—and now that's clearly not true," says Keim, leaving it an open question of just how long B. anthracis spores can survive and still cause disease. "But their first finding that the capillary tube did include B. anthracis DNA was a solid result," says Keim. Unfortunately, none of the 1917 sample remains to be completely sequenced using today's technology. But how do the new study's authors know their work is not suffering from contamination, as well? "It was independently verified by two different labs, working on two different continents," says Keim, a strong argument against contamination. The work also showcases the important role that NGS can play in the quality control monitoring of bacterial strain repositories around the world—to ensure that strains being used in experiments are truly what researchers think they are and to catch strain contamination when it happens. More information: 1. Redmond C., Pearce, M.J., Manchee, R.J., and Berdal, B.P. Nature 393:747-748 (1998).


News Article | April 25, 2017
Site: www.rdmag.com

-A team of international researchers has found that a strain of anthrax-causing bacterium thought to have been viable 80 years after a thwarted World War I espionage attack, was, in reality, a much younger standard laboratory strain. The team speculates that the mix-up was due to commonplace laboratory contamination. The study, published this week in mBio®, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, highlights the advances in genomic sequencing that now enable precise tracking of bacterial strains used in biological warfare and terrorist attacks around the world. "Historically, there have always been bacterial strain mix-ups in the course of doing research," says Paul Keim, executive director of The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and senior author on the current study. "But now that we have the molecular tools, we can do the quality control on strain collections to figure out exactly what they contain." (image: Bacillus anthracis bacteria using Gram-stain technique. credit: CDC) The current study helps debunk the claim that a World War I biological weapon containing anthrax-causing spores was still viable 80 years later. In 1917, German spy Baron Otto von Rosen was caught in Norway possessing lumps of sugar embedded with glass capillaries filled with a liquid holding spores of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. He was suspected of plotting to feed the sugar lumps, which contained the oldest known isolates of B. anthracis, to the reindeer that pulled transports of munitions and foods across the frozen Arctic tundra for the Allied forces. The poison-laced sugar remained in a Norwegian police museum until 1997, when it was sent to what is now known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down, United Kingdom. Researchers there used DNA amplification to determine that the agent inside the tiny glass tubes was indeed B. anthracis. After some extensive laboratory coaxing, they next cultured and isolated four colonies grown from the liquid inside the tubes. In a 1998 Nature paper, they declared that they had revived the anthrax bacterial strain that had spent 8 decades as spores (Ref 1). However, DNA sequencing of entire organism's genome was in its infancy at this time, so the exact genetic identity of the strain was never defined. In 2001, Keim was tapped to help investigate the anthrax-containing letters mailed by a terrorist across the US. At the request of the FBI, Keim's team categorized all known anthrax-causing strains, which included the Porton Down 'sugar' samples and other samples from around the world. At that time, Keim noted a very close genetic similarity between the Porton Down strains and what had become the standard laboratory reference strain used in experiments and vaccine development, known as the Ames Ancestor strain. Amidst the urgency of pinning down which strain was used in the letters--it turned out to be the Ames strain--he forgot about the strange similarity. "As we learned more and more about the Ames strain, it became obvious that it had to be a contaminant," in the Porton Down samples, says Keim. Then, at a 2013 conference, he was approached by German biodefense researchers, who had sequenced what they thought was the original German spy's strain. They too had noticed its genetic resemblance to the Ames strain. Working in tandem, Keim's Arizona team and Herman Meyer and Markus Antwerpen at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich, sequenced the strains using next-generation sequencing (NGS), a technique that allowed them to analyze every genetic difference at the level of single letter changes to the genetic code. It also allows them to sequence a strain's entire genome, not just a handful of times, like the previous technology used in 2001, but 100 times over. The new technology also costs about 10,000 times less per genome sequenced. Both labs confirmed that the Porton Down 'sugar' strains differed by only two genetic letters from the Ames Ancestor strain--a near identical matching. The researchers speculate that during the intense culturing attempts of the sugar samples in 1997, spores from the Ames Ancestor strain, which were likely to be abundant in the Porton Down military defense laboratory facilities, fell into the culture media and grew. Two of the original Porton Down researchers, Martin Pearce and Caroline Redmond, collaborated on this new study to confirm that indeed, a likely contamination event threw off their results. "That work has been cited many times as evidence that spores can survive in liquid for 80 years--and now that's clearly not true," says Keim, leaving it an open question of just how long B. anthracis spores can survive and still cause disease. "But their first finding that the capillary tube did include B. anthracis DNA was a solid result," says Keim. Unfortunately, none of the 1917 sample remains to be completely sequenced using today's technology. But how do the new study's authors know their work is not suffering from contamination, as well? "It was independently verified by two different labs, working on two different continents," says Keim, a strong argument against contamination. The work also showcases the important role that NGS can play in the quality control monitoring of bacterial strain repositories around the world--to ensure that strains being used in experiments are truly what researchers think they are and to catch strain contamination when it happens.


News Article | April 25, 2017
Site: www.rdmag.com

-A team of international researchers has found that a strain of anthrax-causing bacterium thought to have been viable 80 years after a thwarted World War I espionage attack, was, in reality, a much younger standard laboratory strain. The team speculates that the mix-up was due to commonplace laboratory contamination. The study, published this week in mBio®, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, highlights the advances in genomic sequencing that now enable precise tracking of bacterial strains used in biological warfare and terrorist attacks around the world. "Historically, there have always been bacterial strain mix-ups in the course of doing research," says Paul Keim, executive director of The Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and senior author on the current study. "But now that we have the molecular tools, we can do the quality control on strain collections to figure out exactly what they contain." (image: Bacillus anthracis bacteria using Gram-stain technique. credit: CDC) The current study helps debunk the claim that a World War I biological weapon containing anthrax-causing spores was still viable 80 years later. In 1917, German spy Baron Otto von Rosen was caught in Norway possessing lumps of sugar embedded with glass capillaries filled with a liquid holding spores of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. He was suspected of plotting to feed the sugar lumps, which contained the oldest known isolates of B. anthracis, to the reindeer that pulled transports of munitions and foods across the frozen Arctic tundra for the Allied forces. The poison-laced sugar remained in a Norwegian police museum until 1997, when it was sent to what is now known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down, United Kingdom. Researchers there used DNA amplification to determine that the agent inside the tiny glass tubes was indeed B. anthracis. After some extensive laboratory coaxing, they next cultured and isolated four colonies grown from the liquid inside the tubes. In a 1998 Nature paper, they declared that they had revived the anthrax bacterial strain that had spent 8 decades as spores (Ref 1). However, DNA sequencing of entire organism's genome was in its infancy at this time, so the exact genetic identity of the strain was never defined. In 2001, Keim was tapped to help investigate the anthrax-containing letters mailed by a terrorist across the US. At the request of the FBI, Keim's team categorized all known anthrax-causing strains, which included the Porton Down 'sugar' samples and other samples from around the world. At that time, Keim noted a very close genetic similarity between the Porton Down strains and what had become the standard laboratory reference strain used in experiments and vaccine development, known as the Ames Ancestor strain. Amidst the urgency of pinning down which strain was used in the letters--it turned out to be the Ames strain--he forgot about the strange similarity. "As we learned more and more about the Ames strain, it became obvious that it had to be a contaminant," in the Porton Down samples, says Keim. Then, at a 2013 conference, he was approached by German biodefense researchers, who had sequenced what they thought was the original German spy's strain. They too had noticed its genetic resemblance to the Ames strain. Working in tandem, Keim's Arizona team and Herman Meyer and Markus Antwerpen at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich, sequenced the strains using next-generation sequencing (NGS), a technique that allowed them to analyze every genetic difference at the level of single letter changes to the genetic code. It also allows them to sequence a strain's entire genome, not just a handful of times, like the previous technology used in 2001, but 100 times over. The new technology also costs about 10,000 times less per genome sequenced. Both labs confirmed that the Porton Down 'sugar' strains differed by only two genetic letters from the Ames Ancestor strain--a near identical matching. The researchers speculate that during the intense culturing attempts of the sugar samples in 1997, spores from the Ames Ancestor strain, which were likely to be abundant in the Porton Down military defense laboratory facilities, fell into the culture media and grew. Two of the original Porton Down researchers, Martin Pearce and Caroline Redmond, collaborated on this new study to confirm that indeed, a likely contamination event threw off their results. "That work has been cited many times as evidence that spores can survive in liquid for 80 years--and now that's clearly not true," says Keim, leaving it an open question of just how long B. anthracis spores can survive and still cause disease. "But their first finding that the capillary tube did include B. anthracis DNA was a solid result," says Keim. Unfortunately, none of the 1917 sample remains to be completely sequenced using today's technology. But how do the new study's authors know their work is not suffering from contamination, as well? "It was independently verified by two different labs, working on two different continents," says Keim, a strong argument against contamination. The work also showcases the important role that NGS can play in the quality control monitoring of bacterial strain repositories around the world--to ensure that strains being used in experiments are truly what researchers think they are and to catch strain contamination when it happens.


News Article | September 13, 2016
Site: phys.org

In a paper published in Nature Communications, they demonstrate how they synthesised nanometre-sized cage molecules that can be used to transport charge in proton exchange membrane (PEM) applications. Proton-exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) are considered to be a promising technology for clean and efficient power generation in the twenty-first century. PEMFCs contain proton exchange membrane (PEM), which carries positively-charged protons from the positive electrode of the cell to the negative one. Most PEMs are hydrated and the charge is transferred through networks of water inside the membrane. To design better PEM materials, more needs to be known about how the structure of the membrane enables protons to move easily through it. However, many PEMs are made of amorphous polymers, so it is difficult to study how protons are conducted because the precise structure is not known. Scientists from the University's Department of Chemistry synthesised molecules that enclose an internal cavity, forming a porous organic cage into which other smaller molecules can be loaded, such as water or carbon dioxide. When the cages form solid materials, they can arrange to form channels in which the small 'guest' molecules can travel from one cage to another. The material forms crystals in which the arrangement of cages is very regular. This allowed the researchers to build an unambiguous description of the structure using crystallography, a technique that allows the positions of atoms to be located. The molecules are also soluble in common solvents, which means they could be combined with other materials and fabricated into membranes. They measured the protonic conductivity of these porous organic cages after loading the channels with water, to assess their viability as PEM materials. The cages exhibited proton conductivities of up to 10-3 S cm1, which is comparable to some of the best porous framework materials in the literature. In collaboration with researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Center for Neutron Research at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), they used a combination of experimental measurements and computer simulations to build a rich picture of how protons are conducted by the cage molecules. Two distinctive features of the proton conduction in organic cage crystals were highlighted as design principles for future PEM materials. First, the cages are arranged so that the channels extend in three dimensions. This means that the movement of the protons is not limited to a particular direction, as in the case of many porous materials tested so far. Second, the cages direct the movement of the water molecules, which means that protons can be passed between them quickly. Also, the cages are flexible enough to allow the water to reorganize, which is also important when protons are transported from one water molecule to the next over longer distances. Dr Ming Liu who led the experimental work, said: "In addition to introducing a new class of proton conductors, this study highlights design principles that might be extended to future materials. "For example, the 'soft confinement' that we observe in these hydrated solids suggests new anhydrous proton conductors where a porous cage host positions and modulates the protonic conductivity of guest molecules other than water. This would facilitate the development of high temperature PEMFCs, as water loss would no longer be a consideration." Liverpool Chemist, Dr Sam Chong, added: "The work also gives fundamental insight into proton diffusion, which is widely important in biology." Dr Chong has recently been appointed as a lecturer in the University's Materials Innovation Factory (MIF). Due to open in 2017, the £68M MIF is set to revolutionise materials chemistry research and development through facilitating the discovery of new materials which have the potential to save energy and natural resources, improve health or transform a variety of manufacturing processes. The paper 'Three-dimensional Protonic Conductivity in Porous Organic Cage Solids' is published in Nature Communications. Explore further: New technique developed to separate complex molecular mixtures More information: Ming Liu et al, Three-dimensional protonic conductivity in porous organic cage solids, Nature Communications (2016). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms12750


News Article | March 10, 2016
Site: phys.org

By focusing on explosives hidden in clay soils, the University of Sheffield project – funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – has addressed a vital gap in knowledge about how buried explosives interact with their surrounding environment. This is a key factor in determining the pattern and extent of the pressure produced by an explosion. Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said: "British scientific breakthroughs have saved the lives of millions and we will continue to invest in our scientists as they conduct such game-changing research. The potential for this research to provide better protection for British soldiers and humanitarian workers who risk their lives every day, underscores precisely why we continue to support UK science." The project was part of a wider ongoing initiative – the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory's (Dstl's) programme to understand the effects of IEDs and land mines on armoured vehicles. As well as helping to inform future designs of armoured vehicles, the data produced by the project will aid risk assessment and route planning for operations in current and future combat zones. Dr Sam Clarke, who led the EPSRC-funded project, says: "Detonations of explosives in shallow soils are extremely complex events that involve the interaction of the shock waves with the surrounding soil, air and water. The understanding we've generated about how clay soils affect the process is a key piece in the jigsaw, as it complements the extensive knowledge that's already been built up about explosions in sandy and gravelly soils, which are much less cohesive than clay soils." Using the University of Sheffield's unique Explosives Arena, Dr Clarke and his team carried out around 250 test explosions using different soil samples and made 17 different pressure measurements during each test. The results were backed up and verified by numerical modelling developed and applied as part of an EPSRC CASE (Collaborative Award in Science and Engineering) Studentship. The research has revealed how the blast produced by a landmine or IED would interact, for instance, with anti-mine body armour or an armoured plate fixed underneath a troop transport vehicle. Hundreds of UK service personnel have been killed or injured by IEDs in recent years, while landmines in former warzones worldwide continue to cause thousands of deaths every year. In the face of dangers like these, there is a constant drive to keep improving the capabilities of vehicle armour, personal armour and protective footwear, and this can be aided by a clearer understanding about how explosions actually behave. Dr Clarke comments: "The new data we've generated about the distribution of blast loading in clay soils will feed directly into Dstl's world-class work harnessing the latest science and technology to help protect UK troops and ensure they can operate even more effectively in future."


News Article | January 6, 2017
Site: www.techtimes.com

The UK Ministry of Defence is building a new laser prototype that could serve as a weapon. The government agency has awarded a £30 million ($36.9 million) military contract to UK Dragonfire to build a prototype of a laser weapon that makes use of "directed energy" technology. The winning contractor, UK Dragonfire, is composed of companies such as MBDA, Qinetiq, Leonardo-Finmeccanica GKN, Arke, BAE Systems and Marshall ADG. The goal of the project, according to the Ministry of Defence, is to determine if "directed energy" technology would benefit the armed forces. It is expected that the laser prototype will be rolled out across the armed forces by 2019. In military weaponry, directed energy technology comes in the form of lasers, high-powered microwaves, and particle beams, which can be used in ground, air, sea, and space warfare. Weapons created using this technology can be used to destroy drones, aircraft, missiles, mortars, and roadside bombs. Roadside bombs have caused a huge loss of lives for countries going through civil wars, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. This laser-powered system can find and track targets in various range and various weather conditions over land and water, and is precise enough to create a safe and effective engagement. Peter Cooper, a representative from UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) said that the project will allow the government to understand the potential of the technology and could "provide a more effective response to the emerging threats that could be faced by UK armed forces." A spokesperson from the Ministry of Defence said that the decision to invest in advanced weaponry is not to counter an imminent threat but rather to assess whether the technology would prove useful to the armed forces. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon also said that the $36.9 million contract is part of an initiative to transform the department: "The UK has long enjoyed a reputation as a world leader in innovation. Our new Innovation Initiative will transform Defence culture to ensure that we stay ahead of the curve." Sec. Fallon further adds that "with a rising Defence budget, and a £178 billion equipment plan, our commitment to collaboration will deliver a safer and more prosperous Britain." The Dragonfire system could put the UK at the forefront of laser weapon development and is expected to be ready for trials by 2019. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.


News Article | December 7, 2016
Site: www.prweb.com

Rainbow Seed Fund, an early-stage venture capital fund focused on promising technologies developed at the UK’s largest publicly-funded research facilities and campuses, today announces that the fund have now leveraged more than £200m to work supporting UK’s most ground-breaking and innovative companies. Since the Fund’s inception in 2002, Rainbow Seed Fund has been investing in the earliest and riskiest stages to create promising technology companies that stem out of engineering and high-quality science research. The Fund has made a significant contribution to the commercialisation of more than 30 high quality science technology start-up companies in sectors such as health, environmental services, international development and security. Rainbow’s portfolio showcases a number of ‘world’s firsts’ ambitions and includes two companies named by the World Economic Forum as ‘Technology Pioneers’ (see below list). Rainbow Seed Fund partners are leading UK public sector research establishments led by STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council), BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), NERC and Dstl (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory). The fund is independently managed by Midven. “Securing the first round of finance is notoriously hard for early-stage companies, as is investor willingness to continue to back the most promising companies in further funding rounds,” said Dr Andrew Muir, Rainbow Seed Fund Investment Director. “Rainbow aims to lower this establishment phase hurdle and drive companies towards commercialisation and sustainability, offering strategic support and leveraging private capital to help businesses stand on their own. Our differentiating approach is that we don’t just invest in established teams or developed companies. With a risk appetite that is higher than pure private funds, we get involved at the earliest stages and continue to grow with them as ‘patient capital’ investors.” Rainbow Seed Fund Portfolio: World’s Firsts Two of Rainbow’s portfolio companies, Tokamak Energy and Synthace, have been named World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers, joining the ranks of the world’s most innovative companies. By offering backing at an early stage, Rainbow has a unique opportunity to support the UK’s most promising scientists and help turn their ideas into market-leading companies. A number of Rainbow Seed Fund portfolio companies are being recognised for their ‘world’s first ambitions,’ including: MANUFACTURING / ENGINEERING -- Cobalt Light Systems, a spin-out from Rainbow partner STFC, manufactures and sells innovative instruments and technologies for non-invasive, rapid analysis of materials. This technology has applications in airport security to quickly screen liquid contents like baby’s milk; pharmaceutical materials analysis of capsules, tablets, gels or solutions; and handheld detection devices to analyse hazardous materials, explosives and narcotics. Cobalt won the prestigious MacRobert Award from the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2014. -- Last year, Tokamak Energy garnered a 2015 Technology Pioneer award to accelerate the development of cost-effective, clean energy from fusion within the next 10 years. Tokamak aims to accelerate the development of fusion energy by combining two emerging technologies – spherical tokamaks and high-temperature superconductors. MEDICAL / BIOTECH -- Crescendo Biologics is a biopharmaceutical company discovering and developing potent, highly differentiated Humabody® therapeutics in Oncology. In October 2016, Crescendo signed a deal with Takeda on using its Humabody® technology platform to generate tumour targeting drug conjugates and immuno-oncology therapeutics. The deal has a headline value of up to $790m. -- University College London spin-out Synthace, which provides next generation software and processes to exponentially improve productivity in bioscience, was named as the only UK entrant on the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer 2016 list. Synthace is developing Antha to automate biological research. Antha brings an engineering approach to biology, making experiments far more efficient, connecting and automating complex equipment and enabling better engineer biology for health, food, energy and manufacturing. The company, is already serving customers across the pharmaceutical, agriscience and industrial biotechnology industries. SOFTWARE / HARDWARE -- Formed in February 2011, Spectral Edge is a UEA spin-out from the same stable as the technology behind Apple’s HDR image processing. Spectral Edge technology enhances images and video by using information outside the normal visible spectrum or applying transformations to that within it. Applications range from medical imaging and surveillance all the way to consumer applications such as enhancing camera images and TV pictures. ENVIRONMENTAL -- International GeoScience Services (IGS), a spin-out from the British Geological Survey, has developed IGS Xplore, a new and innovative mineral prospectivity software system designed for de-risking early-stage decision making in mineral exploration. The software system uses novel, non-GIS based, semantically-driven technology to generate early-stage, value-added prospectivity maps for regions, countries or geological terranes where base geodata exists. IGS Xplore readily identifies early-stage exploration targets, quickly and cost-effectively, for an extensive range of commodities in a wide variety of regional geological environments. -- A spin-out from STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxsensis is pioneering a “new breed” of highly accurate, highly stable optical sensors. Using light to measure heat, temperature and pressure, based upon proprietary intellectual property rights, Oxsensis’ dynamic sensors can be used in extreme environments — like those created by jet engines and power stations — where traditional sensors run out of steam. Better sensors allow power savings, reduced emissions and improved asset risk management. Oxsensis works with blue-chip partner in global markets of national significance — aerospace, power generation, space, nuclear, and oil and gas. SPACE -- Oxford Space Systems (OSS) has developed a new generation of deployable global satellite space structures that are lighter, less complex and lower cost than those in current commercial demand. In September 2016, OSS set a space industry record going from company formation to material design through product design, test and launch of its deployable boom on a cubesat (a type of miniaturized satellite for space research) in under 30 months. OSS is using the mission as a flight opportunity to validate a number of predictions made for its proprietary flexible composite material in the demanding environment of low-earth orbit. Rainbow Seed Fund Milestones -- Helped to create more than 30 high technology start-up companies across sectors such as health, environmental services, international development and security. -- Leveraged more than £200 million of private investment into their portfolio companies. This represents a ratio of over £20 for every £1 invested from Rainbow. -- Over and above co-investment, Rainbow has helped generate wider economic impact in the form of salaries, taxes and economic activity in suppliers. Known as “Gross Value Add” (GVA), this measurement, at £5 of GVA for every £1 invested by Rainbow, shows the benefit of early stage investment and is forecasted to grow substantially as the companies mature and grow. -- The Fund bolsters the UK’s exports – an overwhelming majority of sales in Rainbow companies are overseas and total sales have already reached over £70m. -- Rainbow has helped to create 240+ high value technology-related jobs, a figure that is rising rapidly as the companies in Rainbow’s portfolio accelerate and transition from research into production and sales. -- The Fund has already had four successful exits and has recycled the funds into new investments. About Rainbow Seed Fund The Rainbow Seed Fund is an early-stage venture capital fund dedicated to kick-starting technology companies from great science. We focus on companies based on research conducted in publicly-funded laboratories, located on the Research Councils’ science and technology campuses or working in fields of strategic interest to the UK (such as synthetic biology). The Fund is backed by nine UK publicly-funded research organisations including STFC, BBSRC, Dstl and NERC and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The Fund, whose portfolio comprises more than 30 companies, holds investments in some of the UK’s most innovative companies in areas as diverse as novel antibiotics, research into Alzheimer’s disease, “green” chemicals and airport security. The Fund has leveraged more than £200 million of private investment from just under £9 million of its own investment and helped create many high-value technology jobs. The Rainbow Seed Fund is managed by Midven, an established venture capital firm with a successful track record of investing in small and medium-sized enterprises. For more information, please visit http://www.rainbowseedfund.com.

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