Clever Apes #18: Biological weapons

September 14, 2011

Download Story

Workers at the Ricketts Lab wear full-body protection when working with anthrax

Just a week after the September 11th attacks, nerves still raw, America was hit with its worst-ever biological attack. The anthrax letters set off a new wave of panic, and reminded scientists how little we understand some of the world’s most dangerous germs. So the government chartered 13 labs to study these pathogens, as well as aggressive infectious disease agents. Given that the anthrax strain sent through the mail was thought to have been stolen from a lab, it’s no surprise that the new labs are highly secure.

But Clever Apes got inside one.

listen to the full episode:

OK, all we really did was ask, and they said, sure. But it’s still kind of an otherworldly experience to see how people work with deadly bugs like anthrax, plague, MRSA and others.

The Howard T. Ricketts Laboratory is run by the University of Chicago, and located on the campus of Argonne National Laboratory. In the latest installment of Clever Apes, we largely skip over the science (more on that coming in a few days), and consider instead what it’s like to work at a place like the Ricketts lab. How do you take a coffee break when you’re in containment? How does your pizza delivery guy get through multiple layers of security? Do you worry about bringing plague home to your kids?

Researcher Hannah Maier preps bacteria samples. (WBEZ/Michael De Bonis)

One exciting thing that we learned: the producers of the new movie Contagion consulted with the staff at U of C and the Ricketts lab, and even recruited some as extras. Biosafety chief John Bivona was one of them, and he says the film gets the lab protocols exactly right, down to the inspection stickers on equipment. He says the 1995 film Outbreak, on the other hand, is a case study in what not to do in a biosafety lab. People in that movie were wearing their respirators upside-down, for goodness sake.

Leo Smith shows the spines of the world's most venomous fish, the Reef Stonefish

For another take on biological warfare, we head to the “wet lab” at the Field Museum, where Leo Smith specializes in venomous fish. It turns out there are many, many more of them than there are venomous snakes or scorpions, and yet we know next to nothing about them. Smith says the ever-growing catalog of known venomous fish could be a treasure trove for developing new drugs.

So put on your Hazmat suits, and don’t forget your Cipro. Gosh, remember the Cipro craze?

Meanwhile, subscribe to our podcast, follow us on Twitter, and find us on Facebook.

Ya-Ting Wang in full garb, in the biosafety level 3 area of the Ricketts lab. (