Genetic Mysteries Decoded

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 and a world-famous researcher in infectious diseases, that's exactly what happened.

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] was 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 Services.

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 resumè-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 infection.'"

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 public health.

"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 true."

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.