Inquiring Minds - Fighting Pathogens

Flagstaff, AZ – The man who cracked the DNA code in the deadly anthrax letter attacks is going after superbugs.

NAU's most famous DNA detective, Dr. Paul Keim, is using his microbial forensics to take down E. coli, Valley Fever, MRSA and the flu. Keim's molecular diagnostics skills were recruited when lethal anthrax arrived in the mail.

"A spore is a lot like a seed," Keim says, "in some ways similar to a virus in that the spores are highly resistant and can spread across time and space very readily. And when if finds its next victim, then it germinates and when it germinates, it leads to the disease called anthrax."

As serious as a spore that's gone systemic, this Regents Professor puts on his full protective gear to enter the world of dangerous pathogens.

"We're super careful," he says, so much so that he says working with anthrax is actually relaxing. "You go back there and there's kind of this white noise from the fan, you're all gowned up and you've got your gloves on and you know you've got to focus."

Tens of millions of dollars were focused on tracing the genetic fingerprints of that particular anthrax strain back to its army lab. Keim, the Director of NAU's Microbial Genetic and Genomics Center, says that investment is paying off.

"It's what I like to call the war dividend. So while we're fighting this war on terror, we also developed technology that would be applicable to any other disease."

As director of TGEN, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, Keim says bio-terrorism may give us the chills, but his work with pathogens may help us all wash our hands of killer germs.