Bioterrorism refers to the intentional dissemination of countless infection agents, including bacteria and viruses, to kill or sicken people, flora, and fauna. Bacillus anthracis is the most commonly used agent of biological attacks. Bacillus anthracis is a rod-shaped Gram-positive bacterium that causes anthrax. The use of widespread pathogens, including B. anthracis, as biological weapons sparked the development of conflicting ideologies, with opponents challenging the use of such means in warfare. A rigorous recap of Bacillus anthracis offers critical insights into its historical development, history of use, its pathogenesis, the lethality of the bio-weaponized version of the pathogen, and preparedness response.
History of the Biology of Bacillus anthracis
The spores of Bacillus anthracis cause every type of anthrax. However, the pathogenicity of B. anthracis is limited to the spores only, with vegetative cells of these bacteria perceived as harmless in particular models of animals. Rods of this particular pathogen manifest in car-like box dimensions measuring 1 µm by 4 µm under a microscope (National Research Council 38). The etymology of the term ‘anthrax’ has Greek origins that particularly mean ‘black’ or ‘coal’. This derivation is founded on the fact that this disease’s cutaneous infection in patients often leads to the development of black lesions in patients (D’Amelio et al. 135). The prevalence of this particular disease spans centuries back to the germ theoretical demonstration by Robert Koch, which proved quite effective in pinpointing B. anthracis as the primary causative agent of anthracis. Unlike bacterial vegetative cells, B. anthracis spores have mustered formidable resistant capabilities to a diverse array of treatment modalities ranging from desiccation, radiation using ultraviolet light, high temperatures, digestion by enzymatic lysozymes and proteases, and countless toxic chemicals (D’Amelio et al. 138). In particular, spores of B. anthracis derive their capabilities to resist the responses of their host’s immune systems at the onset of infection courtesy of their acquired environmental resistance and structural features developed over time (National Research Council 39). Thus far, B. anthracis spores can stay inactive for decades-long but resume growth and development soon as they breach into a hospitable environment, preferably within human, animal, or plant host.
History of Bacillus anthracis in bioterrorism
Bioterrorism denotes using hazardous biological agents as weapons of mass destruction. In particular, Bacillus anthracis features amongst the commonly deployed biological agents of terrorism. It is presumed that this particular bacteria that trigger the manifestation of anthrax would most likely feature amongst the top biohazard agents to be flagged in the event of a biological attack. The notion underlying the likelihood of this particular bacteria being used as a biological weapon is well illustrated based on the interplay of three critical factors. For starters, the ubiquitous nature of the pathogen’s spores in the environment makes it easier for their mass production in a lab (Goel 20). Secondly, the microscopic size of the spores further makes for a good weapon agent that can be rendered in diverse media, including food, sprays, and water. The microscopic size of its spores prevents easier detection of B. anthracis (Goel 20). As such, this weapon has the potential to attack the vast populace quietly and fast. Coupled with the fact that it was used before in 2001, an attack that entailed the use of powdered spores of B. anthracis was placed in a letter that was later mailed using the U.S. postal system. This attack culminated in the death of 5 of 22 people initially infected by the outbreak right before its contamination.
Pathogenesis of anthrax
The pathogenesis of anthrax derives from a historical transcendence marked by key aspects of evolution. Pathogenesis of this bacterium draws on the interplay of key factors, namely structural characteristics of the pathogen and acquisition of resistance to environmental elements. Pathogenesis denotes how pathogens initiate the development of diseases while interacting with integral factors at play that catalyzes further progression and maintenance of disease-causing pathogens. Pathogenicity of B. anthracis highly derives from the interplay of two plasmids containing extrachromosomal molecules of DNA. The two plasmids, namely pXO1 and pXO2, respectively exhibit anthrax toxin and poly-D-glutamate capsule encoding genetic materials (National Research Council 40). Anthrax toxins comprise three proteins: edema factor, protective antigen, and lethal factor, which work in tandem to produce toxicity and accumulation of fluids in host cells. The said factors subsequently initiate the production of cytotoxic enzymes that deregulate normal cell functionalities ranging from homeostatic to metabolic cell functions (National Research Council 40). Additionally, the pathogen uses its protein toxins to undermine the host’s immune defenses while proliferating dysregulation of cell functions, leading to cell dysfunctions and death.
Lethality of Bacillus anthracis
Bioterrorists often resort to modifying the lethality of the present pathogen in a bid to deploy it as a bioweapon. Common modifications include the production of spore B. anthracis in forms that can be aerosolized through sprays and as powders (National Research Council 38). Aerosolized forms of spore B. anthracis can attack the respiratory systems of individuals, in which case the spores get transported to the lymphatic systems, where the dormant spores resume vegetative growth and development.
Adoption of preventive strategies is key to safeguarding people’s lives against an imminent anthrax outbreak. The CDC discovered the effectiveness affiliated with antibodies with the capacity to engulf encapsulated cells by neutralizing anthrax toxins (Savransky et al. 370). Vaccines issued towards preventing an attack caused by this pathogen use the said process (Clark and Daniel 651). Additionally, live attenuated vaccines involving the use of non-toxic producing variants of B. anthracis similarly provide formulations for developing effective vaccines.
Clark, Adam, and Daniel N. Wolfe. “Current state of anthrax vaccines and key R&D gaps moving forward.” Microorganisms 8.5 (2020): 651.
D’Amelio, Enrico, et al. “Historical evolution of human anthrax from occupational disease to potentially global threat as bioweapon.” Environment International 85 (2015): 133-146.
Goel, Ajay Kumar. “Anthrax: A disease of biowarfare and public health importance.” World Journal of Clinical Cases: WJCC 3.1 (2015): 20.
National Research Council. “Review of the scientific approaches used during the FBI’s investigation of the 2001 anthrax letters.” (2011).
Savransky, Vladimir, Boris Ionin, and Joshua Reece. “Current status and trends in prophylaxis and management of anthrax disease.” Pathogens 9.5 (2020): 370.