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David Bricker
University Communications

Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009

Select agent lab is Indiana's first

Aug. 7, 2009

EDITORS: A "Q-and-A" about the select agent lab is located on the Web at

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University Bloomington is home to the state of Indiana's first "select agent" laboratory for the study of pathogens. Select agent labs are safe and secure, and are rigorously regulated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

IU Bloomington biologist Melanie Marketon is the first scientist to use the lab. Marketon studies Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague. Because of changes in human lifestyles and improvements in modern medicine, plague is an exceedingly rare disease in America, and in any case is highly treatable.

Yersinia pestis "needle"

Image by: Andrew Houppert

This micrograph shows the needlelike structure the bacterium Yersinia pestis uses to attack host cells. IU Bloomington biologist Melanie Marketon studies the type III secretion system, which produces the needle structure. Marketon's work could lead to new treatments for diseases caused by the bacterium. This image was created with the Indiana Molecular Biology Institute's JOEL 1010 transmission electron microscope.

Print-Quality Photo

"Obviously, we're very excited," said Marketon, who has worked in a similar lab at the University of Chicago. "We also understand why people might be concerned, but we want them to know there is nothing dangerous to the community here. The extensive safety and security measures we are taking are unprecedented."

The laboratory will allow Marketon to work with a more natural version of Y. pestis. Up until now, she has been working with an "attenuated" strain -- a genetically altered, unnatural version.

Specifically, Marketon studies the type III secretion system, a complex needlelike structure that certain bacteria use to inject harmful proteins into a host's cells. Understanding how the system works could lead to new treatments for plague, or suggest approaches to preventing the bacteria from infecting human cells. Working with non-attenuated strains allows Marketon to do research that bears more directly on the real world.

While plague infections are rare in the U.S., other nations -- such as China, Algeria, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and India -- have seen outbreaks in the past seven years. So what Marketon learns could eventually be applied to public health initiatives in those countries.

"Many of the select agent labs are expressly doing government work," Marketon said. "We believe it's important that some of these labs are at universities, too. It's just a matter of priorities. Our priorities -- asking questions about basic biology or chemistry -- are simply going to be different from the priorities of government researchers. That said, whatever we do could be useful both to public health and biodefense."

IU Bloomington Biology Department Chair Roger Innes hopes the lab will attract new faculty scientists, as well as support enterprising projects by current IU researchers.

"The lab is yet another example of how IU is making serious investments in the state's life sciences landscape," Innes said. "These investments will pay dividends in the form of increased federal funding for research."

Marketon received a $227,000, 1.5-year grant in 2007 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (through the Great Lakes Regional Center of Excellence) to study why Y. pestis attacks some host cells and not others. And last month, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded Marketon another $401,781 over two years to study the regulation of type III secretion by YopK, a native protein that appears to influence the bacterium's ability to attack host cells. This latter project does not require the use of non-attenuated strains of Y. pestis.

Approval of select agent labs is the sole milieu of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency based in Atlanta, Ga. Not only must applicants justify having such a lab, they must also pass a series of inspections and tests. A CDC visit in June (2009) marked the final preliminary inspection. "We passed with flying colors," Marketon said.

The CDC will conduct regular inspections as long as IU's select agent lab remains open.

"Everything about the lab had to pass the inspection," Marketon said. "The electrical infrastructure, the disinfection stations, the lights, even the design. In addition, we had to pass inspections of our safety and security procedures: what we will be doing on a daily basis, but also how we would react if even the most minor thing goes wrong. All lab employees are subjected to background checks by the U.S. Department of Justice. Even maintenance workers must be screened before they may enter."

Access to the laboratory is limited to a scant few -- not all the members of Marketon's conventional laboratory will have clearance. Anyone who enters the lab must be accompanied by a "buddy," which improves supervision as well as worker safety. There will always be a "responsible official" on duty and on call, as well as a backup responsible official. The select agent lab's first responsible official is Sarah Null, who, like Marketon, has worked in similar labs before. A detailed log of who enters, who exits and when, will be maintained and regularly inspected.

Marketon said they are also coordinated with key staff at the IU Police Department and Bloomington Hospital for preparedness' sake.

"We won't be using very large quantities of Yersinia pestis -- ever," Marketon said. "And every single colony of the bacterium is tracked, from the time it is plated out to the time it dies."

The origin of IU's new select agent lab goes back to 2006, when Marketon was interviewing for a job at IU Bloomington. As a testament to then-Biology Chair Jeff Palmer's interest in her research, he began inquiring about how to go about establishing a select agent lab in Bloomington. Marketon says current Biology Chair Innes and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bennett Bertenthal have been instrumental in ensuring the project progressed.

"When it looked like there might be a hitch, Bennett convinced others that this lab would be important to IU's research future," Marketon said.

"The College of Arts and Sciences is committed to providing life scientists with the most advanced facilities for conducting cutting-edge research," Bertenthal said. "This new select agent lab is but the most recent in a growing list of core facilities invested in by the College. The availability of these state-of-the-art facilities is one important reason that extramural research funding to the College has been increasing significantly over the past few years."

Yersinia pestis appears to have evolved to live primarily in rodent hosts. Because of the physiological similarities between rodents and humans, Marketon says humans are an "accidental host" for the plague bacterium. Fleas and other blood-sucking insects may also act as carriers. Because of changes in human lifestyles --as well as improvements in medicine -- Y. pestis infections have become rare in modern nations and very treatable if diagnosed early.

The managing architect of the select agent lab was the Indiana University Architects Office and BSA LifeStructures of Indianapolis served as Architect/Engineer of Record. CDI Inc. of Bloomington was the lab's general contractor, Harrell-Fish Incorporated of Bloomington was the mechanical contractor, and Siemens in Indianapolis provided the lab's control systems. Commissioning the lab were George Butler Associates, Inc., of Lenexa, Kan., and VicoCon, Inc., of Kansas City, Mo.

The IU Select Agent Lab was funded by the IU Commitment to Excellence Fund and the College of Arts and Sciences.

To speak with Marketon, Null, Innes or Bertenthal, please contact David Bricker, University Communications, at 812-856-9035 or A brief Q&A was prepared to accompany this press release. It can be found on the Web at, or by contacting David Bricker.