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Indictment of Academics Raises Worries
2 July 2004 (All day)
The U.S. government on 29 June accused two professors--a scientist and an artist--of illegally shipping normally innocuous microbes in a case that has many academics worried and upset.
The case stems from an emergency call that Steven Kurtz, an art professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo, placed on 11 May after waking up to find that his wife had died of a heart attack overnight. Paramedics noticed an array of petri dishes, test tubes, and other lab equipment in his home, and contacted Buffalo police. FBI agents then confiscated the material, including two species of bacteria that Kurtz had planned to include in an upcoming exhibit. Neither of the bacteria, Serratia marcescens and Bacillus atrophaeus, is on the list of select agents promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both are widely considered harmless, although Serratia occasionally triggers a pneumonia-like illness.
The U.S. Attorney's office in Buffalo maintains that Robert Ferrell, the head of the human genetics department at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, purchased the two strains from a company, American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), in Manassas, Virginia, with the purpose of passing them on to Kurtz. Ferrell's contract with the company, like all other such contracts, prohibited redistribution of the microbes, says Ray Cypess, president and CEO of ATCC. Both Kurtz and Ferrell face three charges of mail fraud and one charge of wire fraud, with a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $250,000 fine for each count.
Neither Kurtz nor Ferrell will comment on the case. But others are deeply troubled. The two professors "fall on no one's radar screen as a potential terrorist," says Steven Block, a biophysicist and bioterrorism expert at Stanford University in California. "Why, then, is the government pursuing this?" Friends of the pair say they're horrified by the tough line taken by U.S. authorities, which for some is reminiscent of that against Texas microbiologist Thomas Butler (Science, 19 December 2003, p. 2054). "When I read his name [in The Washington Post], my heart stopped," says Jim Hagberg, a physiologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has collaborated with Ferrell for years. "It's unfathomable."
Background on Serratia marcescens