“What’s that?” you ask. “A multicolored atomic bomb blast?” No, it’s not, but in its way it’s something just as lethal. It’s a picture scientists have snapped of the toxin protein that makes the anthrax organism so dangerous to human life and limb. Look at it carefully and you’ll see that, while it superficially resembles a mushroom cloud rising above a column of hot gas, it’s actually an aggregation of protein molecules gathered together for the purpose of killing you cell-by-cell.
In fact, a more apt comparison for this anthrax toxin is a syringe. Notice at the bottom of the image a level line made up of individual little molecules shaped like green-headed aliens with long stringy bodies? Well, those green-heads are actually the fat molecules that combine to make up the skin-like membrane that covers the surface of a cell in the same way a shell covers an egg. Notice how the toxin molecule has jabbed its long needle through the cell membrane? That’s not a good thing.
You see, when Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that produces fatal anthrax infections, secretes this poison injector, it emits a second killer protein along with this one. That protein, given the colorfully appropriate name “Lethal Factor” is pushed by the injector molecule down through the barrel of its syringe, to enter the interior of the target cell. Once inside, lethal factor has additional jobs to do. It moves around inside the cell and attacks the cell’s own proteins until it has caused a fatal accumulation of damaged and broken molecules and the cell finally gives up and dies, poisoned from the inside out.
You have to wonder why a little microbial cell that lives in dirt like Bacillus anthracis would want to be so mean to a person, down there at the cellular level. It has to do, you see, with the lifestyle of B. anthracis. It’s a microbe that lurks in mud and muck, waiting for an animal or human with a scratch on a foot or leg to come along and splash around in the bacillus’s home puddle. Once inside the wound, the organism secretes the toxin to make the wound get bigger instead of healing. Once this task is accomplished, the bacillus has a rich nutritious home in which to grow and it rapidly proliferates into millions of copies of itself, spreading more toxin and exploding a population of germs that are shed back into the soil as the victim walks around. Now there are millions more bacilli to wait for another victim.
So that’s the old sometimes-lethal-but-not-always disease that has bothered sheep and shepherds since biblical times. But now enters modern man with his tendency to exacerbate any problem and where possible, turn any dangerous thing into a weapon. Since World War 2, government agencies in many countries have fiddled around with Bacillus anthracis to see if they could “weaponize” it. Guess what? They could.
You’ll recall the anthrax scare of 2001 and a few subsequent news items on that subject. And maybe you’ll recall that it was a government researcher who worked with weaponized B. anthracis, who lost his job but took a little of his work home with him when he left. He put a powdered dust of the organism in some envelopes and mailed them to some folks, some of whom got quite sick or died as a result. You may also recall that as other government researchers, namely FBI agents, closed in on him, he ended the story by committing suicide.
And there the story lies, for now. But leave it to a scientist-turned-mystery-writer like me to apply my hyperactive imagination to the concept. I’ve got a feeling that my biotech sleuth, Dr. Peyton McKean, will soon embark on an adventure that involves tracking down a murderer who’s using this deadly molecular weapon.