U. Tech Enables DEA to Trace the Origins of Drugs

U. Tech Enables DEA to Trace the Origins of Drugs
Posted by FoM on February 02, 2000 at 20:54:55 PT
By Joe Bauman, Deseret News Staff Writer
Source: Deseret News
Drug agents may seize cocaine arriving in Miami, but often they are uncertain where the narcotics originated. Even knowing where the smuggler set out isn't enough. A shipment could have been grown in Colombia or simply funneled through cartels there. Cocaine is cocaine, indistinguishable one batch from another  that is, until now.
Today, an innovative laboratory at the University of Utah is able to check the chemical "fingerprint" of drugs and determine with amazing precision where the illegal crops were grown.The same technology, perfected in the laboratory of biologist James R. Ehleringer, can detect the origin of counterfeit notes or tell whether the ancient Anasazi of southern Utah used reservoirs to grow their corn crops.It can sniff out adulteration in food, showing whether that sweet taste in imported honey is the real stuff or cheap corn syrup added in. It can even show whether the destruction of rain forests in Brazil is contributing to the greenhouse effect.The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is so impressed that it is building its own laboratory based on the U.'s and may hire away a top technician for the facility."If we have better knowledge of where illicit drugs in this country are coming from, we can allocate our limited resources to combat this threat," said Bob Klein, research supervisor at the DEA's Special Testing and Research Laboratory in McLean, Va.The DEA has acquired the instruments to analyze isotopes and is working to get the lab operational. That should be by this summer. "We'll be analyzing probably about 6,000 samples a year," Klein said.By testing contraband, the DEA will better know which areas to target for eradication. And the information will inject science into the debate over whether to certify particular countries as in compliance with the war on drugs.ALL This is possible through the analysis of the ratio of isotopes, which are chemically similar variants of common elements. Ordinary atoms like oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen can have different isotopes, depending on the number of their neutrons. The particular isotopic makeup is determined by the environment.During a tour of the lab on the fifth floor of the Skaggs Biology Research Building, Ehleringer and technician Mike Lott showed how they separate mixtures into molecules so they can be analyzed by a mass spectrometer. Samples are drawn out by syringe.The mass spectrometer indicates the exact makeup of the molecules. For example, it tells researchers how many atoms in a sample are hydrogen-1 and how many are the much rarer hydrogen-2.Last week, samples in small glass flasks were lined up waiting to be fed into the mass spectrometer. Labeled according to where they were collected, the tubes and bottles contained air and water from sites in Brazil.The mass spectrometer, which does its work inside a long metal cabinet, was labeled "BIG DOG." It is truly the heavy lifter of the field, drawing experts from around the country to study the Utah technique."Basically, what we're trying to understand is the extent to which the rain forest is a sink or a source of carbon dioxide," Ehleringer said, indicating the sample tubes for the present experiment. The following week, the machine may analyze something as exotic as fossilized bones.Jean Ometto, a Brazilian from Sao Paulo and one of the researchers in the study, noted that the Amazon rain forest is one of the most important biological systems. It contributes greatly to the world's supply of fresh oxygen, as its plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.But when the forest is burned to clear land for farming, the carbon locked in plant vegetation is released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide."We're interested in carbon cycle and water cycle in tropical forest, so we sample air and water vapor from forest and pasture environments in the Amazon region," Ometto explained. The results will show the level of carbon dioxide released into the environment.Samples are analyzed both in Utah and in Brazil.According to Ehleringer, that study may help scientists understand whether the Amazon Basin is contributing to the greenhouse effect, which may be triggering global warming.During a talk last Wednesday at the Little America Hotel, he said the mass spectrometer can detect minute differences in atomic weight among isotopes, as small as 0.0001 percent to 0.00001 percent."Natural variations occur because of chemical processes, because of biological processes, because of physical processes that discriminate," Ehleringer said. Some processes favor isotopes of one type over a sister that is slightly heavier or lighter.Sample sizes needed for analysis are minute, he said. They are 1 or 2 milligrams, "equal to about 10 grains of salt."In detecting the source of high-quality counterfeit $100 bills, nicknamed the "super note," the lab checked on isotopes contained in cotton used to make the fake currency.The scientists were able to determine that an early group of the bills came from Eastern Europe. Later editions had isotopes "absolutely consistent with the region that starts in the eastern Mediterranean and ends in Afghanistan," he said.Working with the DEA, Ehleringer tested ratios of various isotopes in illegal cocaine and heroin. The drug agency provided samples from known resources, labeled only with a code known to the DEA.The blind test showed that "our predictability is between 90 and 95 percent" in identifying the country that grew the drugs.The DEA's Klein said the agency learned of Ehleringer because of the Utahn's work tracing explosives and fake currency. "We were very favorably impressed," he said, and agency experts wondered if the technology could be expanded to trace illicit drugs. Ehleringer has "really proven the viability of the technique."Published: February 2, 2000Copyright  2000, Deseret News Publishing Corp. 
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