Anthrax (the disease, not the band)

I love it when you can find awesome quotes for these pieces and as far as I’m concerned this is probably one of the better ones:

“The steaming ox falls before the heavy plow. Blood mixed with froth issue from his mouth as he groans his last…His sturdy flanks waste away, a heavy stupor dulls his eyes, and his head sags near the earth. Of what use to him now is all his toil in the service of mankind? What profit has he gained by turning up the heavy soil with the plow?”

Pretty nice huh? Can you guess who wrote it? That was written by Virgil. A bit like Madonna he apparently goes by just the one name but he was a Roman poet responsible for the Aeneid, a cornerstone of western culture describing the wandering of the Trojan hero Aeneis and the eventual war with the Latins in Italy, resulting in the founding of Rome. So yeah, it’s an epic poem.

That piece above isn’t from Aeneid but from the third of the four volumes of Virgil’s Georgics, poems about agriculture of all things. The third volume was about animal husbandry and that piece from it is one of the earliest descriptions of Anthrax.

Virgil chilling with his poetry posse and a head (

Anthrax as well as having poetic qualities also has an interesting habit of finding its way into major scientific works, and the hands of great scientists. Koch (who we have talked about earlier) worked on Anthrax for many years resulting in his defining work known as Koch’s Postulates. However the mac-daddy of microbiology, Louis Pasteur (that’s Dr. Pasteur to you) didn’t think Koch’s work was conclusive so he went on to design an experiment to support the foundations of Koch’s Postulates. Despite helping to cement Koch’s place in history the implication by Pasteur that Koch’s work alone wasn’t enough caused a rift between them that lasted their remaining years.

Enough gushing about long dead scientists, what does Anthrax actually do? Anthrax is actually more accurately called Bacillus anthracis and is a gram positive toxigenic spore forming that is capable of infecting any warm blooded animal, and also apparently snakes if you read the Georgics carefully. There are three anthrax diseases, inhalation anthrax, gastrointestinal anthrax and cutaneous anthrax.

Cutaneous anthrax is largely treatable and occurs after the bacteria enters the body through cuts and grazes on the skin. Once the bacteria enters this warm, moist environment a small blister forms and this can eventually becomes a lesion. As the tissue becomes necrotic it turns black (Fun fact: ‘Anthrax’ comes from the Greek άνθραξ meaning coal, which is black, obviously.) and more blisters form around the lesion. In most cases the bacteria stay localised in an ever widening blister/lesion but in a small percentage of cases the lesions leak bacteria into the blood stream which is never good.

Gastrointestinal anthrax is rare, normally developing after you have eaten under-cooked meat (Hooray! for delicious Carpaccio!). As well as being rare its next to impossible to diagnose as its symptoms of pain and nausea are pretty widespread. A similar pattern of lesion formation occurs but due to its difficult diagnosis this form is more often fatal as less people get it treated early.

Finally, Inhalation anthrax or ‘Woolsorter’s Disease’ occurs after the aspiration of the bacteria into the lungs. From here they can move very easily into the bloodstream either directly or indirectly after hitching a ride inside immune cells. As the immune cell has a very hard time killing off the bacteria it escapes into the bloodstream after killing off its carrier, kind of like the Trojan Horse trick used against the Greeks – wow, I am hitting some ancient references here today.

In any case, all roads lead to Rome um, the bloodstream, where things really kick off. Once in the blood the bacteria replicates freely and eventually outnumber blood cells, resulting in the blood appearing black instead of red, awesome. The bacteria then do all the normal things, invade all organs in sight causing them to be reduced to useless pulp and the patient drops dead. Before the patient gets to experience hemorrhagic meningitis, bleeding into the brain fluid, loss of consciousness, general internal bleeding, intense fever, shortness of breath and chest pain severe enough to be mistaken for a heart attack hypovolemic shock and, mercifully, death.

You have probably heard of Anthrax being used as a bio-terroism agent before. Anthrax fits into a happy little family of bacteria capable of being turned into a weapon which also includes the nastiest of nasties Smallpox. Anthrax’s super power is sporulation. Sporulation is the process by which some bacteria can turn off their metabolic processes, sequester their DNA into safety and wait out the rough times. They have a friggen pause button for life.

Anthrax spores, not to be confused with either the game SPORE or the treat Smore (SPORE -, Smore -

This ability to sporulate is reversible and spore can become vegetative bacteria again after you, let say, spray them out of a plane over enemy troops allowing them to inhale the spores or the spores to work into the cuts or just generally contaminating the area. Or maybe you could just send a letter to your enemy filled with spores so that when they open the letter they inhale a good dose of spores. But neither of things would ever happen, would they?


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