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Clostridium botulinum produces the most lethal toxin in the world.
PHOTO: EYE OF SCIENCE/SCIENCE SOURCE
It appeared to be a serious new threat to biosecurity that justified an unusual level of scientific secrecy—until, suddenly, it wasn't. In 2013, Stephen Arnon of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) reported finding a novel type of botulinum toxin against which no existing antitoxins offered protection, leaving society defenseless against bioterrorists who might manage to produce the compound and spread it through food or air. To protect against the threat, Arnon decided not to reveal the genetic sequence of the microbe that produced the toxin in his papers, a move that attracted considerable media attention.
But late last year, U.S. government researchers concluded that the secrecy was unnecessary because the toxin poses no special threat at all. They went on to post the entire sequence in GenBank. Their as-yet-unpublished findings were met with a sigh of relief in biodefense circles. But even today, many in the small field of botulinum research wonder how two labs could arrive at such radically different conclusions. And many say the episode could have ended much earlier—or been prevented altogether—if Arnon had been willing to share the strain of Clostridium botulinum with other labs sooner/.../