A researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last week escaped a jail sentence but was fined US$500 for sending bacterial samples to a performance artist in Buffalo, New York.
In 2004, geneticist Robert Ferrell supplied Steven Kurtz, an art professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, with samples of Bacillus globigii, Serratia marcescens and a benign form of Escherichia coli. Kurtz used bacteria in experiments involving the audience to explore attitudes towards bioterror and genetic engineering in shows by his performance art troupe, the Critical Art Ensemble.
Kurtz's wife suffered a fatal heart attack in May of that year. Emergency workers who arrived at the artist's home became suspicious when they found the samples and laboratory equipment (see Nature 429, 690 ; 2004). Federal prosecutors later charged Ferrell and Kurtz with mail and wire fraud.
Last October, 64-year-old Ferrell pleaded guilty to one count of mailing an injurious article. He describes the prosecution as a “nuisance”. Kurtz still faces prosecution and is fighting to have the case thrown out.