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EuroThrax: Detection, bioforensics and genomics of Bacillus anthracis / high pathogenic B. cereus sensu lato

Genomic analyses of Bacillus anthracis and high pathogenic Bacillus cereus to distinguish natural contamination from intentional contamination and improve bioforensics.

Trace back analysis of biological agents is the prime directive of public authorities after initial medical first response. Detailed knowledge about the pathogen is of utmost importance to rapidly distinguish natural contamination from intentional contamination events in order to initiate appropriate measures. In an ever-growing interconnected world, a holistic approach on an international level is needed to combat outbreaks. This project focuses on Bacillus anthracis, the etiological agent of anthrax, which is a zoonotic spore forming bacterial pathogen that affects humans and animals. B. anthracis has gained increased prominence because of its past and recent misuse as an agent of bioterror. With the ongoing climate change the organism’s habitability in European soils is possibly increasing and, as a consequence, the likelihood of natural contaminations and outbreaks is increasing as well. Furthermore, if environmental factors are changing, historical anthrax sites might pose additional potential threats. Data on past and current genotypes of B. anthracis in Central Europe, respectively Austria, is very limited. Although anthrax is historically known in Austria, only one clinical isolate from Tyrol has been sequenced so far and genetic information from environmental isolates is literally lacking.

This project is expected to increase the knowledge on genotypes of B. anthracis and closely related Bacillus cereus sensu lato (s.l.) strains from various origins, including clinical specimen, specimens from historical collections and soils from historical anthrax sites. By elucidating present and past genotypes, microevolution and host-adaptation, this project will improve trace back analysis in future outbreak scenarios. The comparison of isolation protocols for different soil types will contribute significantly to CBRN readiness capabilities of partner states.

The genetic homogeneity of these bacteria, the resulting challenges regarding characterization and diagnostics of associated infections, requires international collaboration be- tween applied government research institutions and university research. Thus, to meet the objectives of this project, a consortium of three partners, running expert laboratories, two from Austria and one from Germany, has been build. The partners will conduct re- search on the genetically homogenous, yet in their respective pathogenic potential di- verse, species of the B. cereus s.l. group. Furthermore, personnel and scientific exchange will promote guidance and mentoring for junior scientists of the participating nations with the aim of fostering subject expertise and skill development.