UGA Research Magazine

A Newly Discovered Carbohydrate Structure Unique to Anthrax

by Philip Lee Williams



A week after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the letters began to arrive. Envelopes containing deadly anthrax bacteria were mailed to two U.S. senators and several offices of the news media. Five people died, and 17 others became infected.

Since that time, governmental authorities have been engaged in a race to find ways to keep citizens safe if terrorists attack again with Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax. Researchers at UGA, collaborating with scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, have discovered a unique carbohydrate structure in the cell wall of B. anthracis that may determine its virulence.

There are more than 100 known strains of B. anthracis, and one of the most virulent is called the Ames Strain. It is this strain that was mailed to victims in the fall of 2001. The research team examined the major polysaccharide in cell walls of four Bacillus anthracis strains—Ames, Pasteur, Sterne and UT60—and compared them to those of two related strains of Bacillus cereus, a soil-dwelling bacterium that causes food-borne illnesses. Bacterial cultures and the initial cell wall preparations were prepared by CDC researchers in their biosafety labs. Researchers determined that the structures of the B. anthracis cell wall polysaccharides were identical to one another and significantly different from those of even closely related B. cereus strains.

Because this new carbohydrate structure was only found in the anthrax bacterium, it can potentially be used to prepare rapid diagnostic tests for anthrax, and perhaps even a new vaccine additive. Russell Carlson of UGA’s biochemistry and molecular biology department and Complex Carbohydrate Research Center (CCRC) was corresponding author on a paper reporting the research, published in the September 2006 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Other CCRC authors include Biswa Choudhury, Christine Leoff, Elke Saile and Elmar Kannenberg. Collaborators at CDC were Patricia Wilkins and Conrad P. Quinn. The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy.

For more information contact Russell Carlson at


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