Paul Keim: Decoding Genetic Mysteries
Paul Keim, PhD
Regents' Professor of Biology
Director, NAU Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics (MGGen)
Cowden Endowed Chair in Microbiology
College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences
Becoming a scientist doesn't usually
come with an expectation of being on the frontlines of a domestic terrorist
attack. But for Paul Keim, Regents' Professor of Biology at Northern Arizona
University(NAU) and a world-famous researcher in infectious diseases, that's exactly
Cracking the anthrax case
Following the 2001 anthrax attacks
on the East Coast, Keim and his research played a crucial role in aiding the
United States military and intelligence community in investigations and
clean-up efforts. Dubbed by some in the media as a "bioterrorism
warrior," Keim conducted genomic analyses on the anthrax inside the
contaminated letters that were sent, and tracked it back to a single flask of
anthrax spores from a laboratory in Maryland.
"[The Northern Arizona
University anthrax team] were the world's experts in DNA analysis and anthrax,
and we still are, but we'd been getting money from the U.S. government to
develop tracking tools for where the anthrax comes from," Keim says.
"We investigated numerous natural outbreaks of anthrax, because you have
to understand the natural disease to spot the unnatural one."
After the 2001 anthrax
investigation, Keim applied similar genetic tracking techniques to other cases.
In Haiti, months after a devastating 2010 earthquake, a cholera outbreak killed
6,000 people. Keim and his team conducted DNA analysis of the cholera strain
found in Haiti, and tracked it to Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti to assist
with earthquake relief efforts.
When heroin users in Scotland
contracted anthrax infections, Keim again tracked the source of the anthrax
contamination-this time to drug smuggling routes in the Middle East. Keim
concluded that the anthrax-tained heroin may have been cut with bonemeal that
contained anthrax spores, or wrapped in contaminated animal hides during the
drug's journey to Scotland.
As a member and former chair of the
U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, Keim works with other
experts in infectious diseases, biology, biosafety, public health, national
security, and law enforcement to analyze the risks and benefits of biological
research being conducted by private ventures. The board reports its
recommendations to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human
Getting undergraduates involved
As Keim continues to conduct crucial research for high-level government use, he
also continues to include undergraduates in his work. In the Center
for Microbial Genetics and Genomics, up to 10 new undergraduates are
accepted into the laboratory every year through a competitive screening
process. If they make the cut, not only are they able to work with Keim, but
they are paid to do so.
"We don't want them working a
second job at McDonald's;we want them here working--and it's a real job,"
Keim says. "By the time they've been in the lab for a year or two, they're
working very independently. . . I think I've had 150 undergraduates end up as
coauthors on scientific papers."
Those publishing opportunities are
not just resume-builders. Often, they can mean $10 million in new funding for
the lab. Keim says they are also learning how to communicate at research
meetings. Not surprisingly, many of them want to learn about the forensic side
of Keim's work.
"We have multiple
investigations going on right now," Keim says. "Many times it is not
a criminal act, and public health officials say, 'That's great-you helped us
solve this problem and now we know it wasn't by a person, it was a natural
Improving public health
Keim has also taken his ventures off campus, to a nonprofit research institute
called the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen North, where he
is Director of the Pathogen Genomics Division. He compares its work to that of
Lowell Observatory or the Museum of Northern Arizona,with cross-over research
done on campus. At TGen North, the work is aimed at taking basic research that
is typically done in university laboratories and applying it to help improve
"Both my work at the university
and at TGen North use genomic information toward some end. On campus we tend to
do more of the basic research--especially in the areas of ecology and diverse
organisms. It's called translational genomics. At TGen we're much more driven by
the applications information toward the clinic."
As it turns out, Keim's work at the
university represents a sort of homecoming. He graduated in 1977 with a
bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry. Truth be told, Keim says, he didn't
think he'd be coming back, convinced that the university couldn't support the
type of research he wanted to do at the level he wanted to do it. He envisioned
a career spent in genetic, genomic, and DNA analysis.
Specifically, he wanted to explore
DNA to understand genes and how organisms are related to each other. But, Keim
says, when the time came his alma mater delivered.
"There was a position that
opened up and I was recruited," Keim says. "They convinced me I could
do what I wanted to do and I'd say twenty two years later that it was
Winning awards and accolades
Colleagues and numerous professional organizations have recognized Keim's work.
In 2002, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, which
acknowledges outstanding scientific achievement and original contributions to
the field. As the Cowden Endowed Chair in Microbiology, Keim holds one of only
six endowed chairs at the university. Most recently, Keim was named the 2012
Bioscience Researcher of the Year at the AZBio Awards.
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