What is Anthrax?


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a) A black nodule on skin. b) A red plate with grey colonies.
(a) Cutaneous anthrax is an infection of the skin by B. anthracis, which produces tissue-damaging exotoxins. Dead tissues accumulating in this nodule have produced a small black eschar. (b) Colonies of B. anthracis grown on sheep’s blood agar. (credit a, b: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

The zoonotic disease anthrax is caused by Bacillus anthracis, a gram-positive, endospore-forming, facultative anaerobe. Anthrax mainly affects animals such as sheep, goats, cattle, and deer, but can be found in humans as well. Sometimes called wool sorter’s disease, it is often transmitted to humans through contact with infected animals or animal products, such as wool or hides. However, exposure to B. anthracis can occur by other means, as the endospores are widespread in soils and can survive for long periods of time, sometimes for hundreds of years.

The vast majority of anthrax cases (95–99%) occur when anthrax endospores enter the body through abrasions of the skin. This form of the disease is called cutaneous anthrax. It is characterized by the formation of a nodule on the skin; the cells within the nodule die, forming a black eschar, a mass of dead skin tissue. The localized infection can eventually lead to bacteremia and septicemia. If untreated, cutaneous anthrax can cause death in 20% of patients. Once in the skin tissues, B. anthracis endospores germinate and produce a capsule, which prevents the bacteria from being phagocytized, and two binary exotoxins that cause edema and tissue damage. The first of the two exotoxins consists of a combination of protective antigen (PA) and an enzymatic lethal factor (LF), forming lethal toxin (LeTX). The second consists of protective antigen (PA) and an edema factor (EF), forming edema toxin (EdTX).

Less commonly, anthrax infections can be initiated through other portals of entry such as the digestive tract (gastrointestinal anthrax) or respiratory tract (pulmonary anthrax or inhalation anthrax). Typically, cases of noncutaneous anthrax are more difficult to treat than the cutaneous form. The mortality rate for gastrointestinal anthrax can be up to 40%, even with treatment. Inhalation anthrax, which occurs when anthrax spores are inhaled, initially causes influenza-like symptoms, but mortality rates are approximately 45% in treated individuals and 85% in those not treated. A relatively new form of the disease, injection anthrax, has been reported in Europe in intravenous drug users; it occurs when drugs are contaminated with B. anthracis. Patients with injection anthrax show signs and symptoms of severe soft tissue infection that differ clinically from cutaneous anthrax. This often delays diagnosis and treatment, and leads to a high mortality rate.

B. anthracis colonies on blood agar have a rough texture and serrated edges that eventually form an undulating band. Broad spectrum antibiotics such as penicillin, erythromycin, and tetracycline are often effective treatments.

Unfortunately, B. anthracis has been used as a biological weapon and remains on the United Nations’ list of potential agents of bioterrorism. Over a period of several months in 2001, a number of letters were mailed to members of the news media and the United States Congress. As a result, 11 individuals developed cutaneous anthrax and another 11 developed inhalation anthrax. Those infected included recipients of the letters, postal workers, and two other individuals. Five of those infected with pulmonary anthrax died. The anthrax spores had been carefully prepared to aerosolize, showing that the perpetrator had a high level of expertise in microbiology.

A vaccine is available to protect individuals from anthrax. However, unlike most routine vaccines, the current anthrax vaccine is unique in both its formulation and the protocols dictating who receives it. The vaccine is administered through five intramuscular injections over a period of 18 months, followed by annual boosters. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved administration of the vaccine prior to exposure for at-risk adults, such as individuals who work with anthrax in a laboratory, some individuals who handle animals or animal products (e.g., some veterinarians), and some members of the United States military. The vaccine protects against cutaneous and inhalation anthrax using cell-free filtrates of microaerophilic cultures of an avirulent, nonencapsulated strain of B. anthracis. The FDA has not approved the vaccine for routine use after exposure to anthrax, but if there were ever an anthrax emergency in the United States, patients could be given anthrax vaccine after exposure to help prevent disease.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology