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Microbial forensics: The next great forensic challenge


Deliberately spreading disease among the enemy has been occasionally practiced over hundreds of years. But modern bioterrorism is more chilling than ever because of rapidly expanding knowledge about infectious diseases and biotoxins and their potential to wreak havoc in complex, interdependent societies. The nation is in the process of developing a strong microbial forensic program to attribute and prosecute such attacks, and perhaps deter them.

The opportunities and challenges facing the new field of microbial forensics will be presented at the 229th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society on March 13-17 in San Diego.

"It is imperative to establish robust microbial forensic capabilities, with the power of the methods, results, and interpretations well understood and defensible," said Randall S. Murch, associate director for research program development at Virginia Tech, formerly deputy director of the FBI’s Laboratory and Investigative Technology Divisions and a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analysis. Murch created the FBI’s weapons of mass destruction forensic unit in 1996 and has been a leader in this area of our national response since then.

"An effective program requires relevant, exploitative, fully validated methods and uses in all aspects of the forensic investigative process," Murch said. "This ranges from sample collection to interpretation of results, while achieving full integration into investigation, prosecution, intelligence, and decision making. Since the results of a microbial forensics investigation could be used for either criminal prosecutions or those at the national level, we must be sure that the methods and results will be admissible in court, and must be accepted by senior government decision makers."

Murch and other scientists point to many challenges posed by bioterrorism, including that numerous pathogens exist in nature and do not necessarily require sophisticated expertise or technology to be weaponized; many methods could be used by adversaries to perpetrate an attack, from simple to complex; physicians may not diagnose early symptoms of disease if not warned to look for them, increasing risk and allowing adversaries to escape; effective treatments may not exist for many agents; numerous unprotected agricultural targets exist; and the availability of basic knowledge and biological equipment in hospitals, universities, industries, and from commercial sources. In addition, "A perpetrator can be long gone by the time a disease takes effect, and the original crime scene could be difficult to locate and link to suspects," Murch said.

Additionally, the biological and ecological complexity of most biothreat agents present forensic microbiologists with a number of significant analytical and interpretive challenges. "It is doubtful that any one single technique will be sufficient, but rather a ’multivariate approach’ will be required that is tailored to the threat encountered and situation to be addressed. In any case, the scientific and investigative processes must be closely coupled and mutually supportive," Murch said.

There have been numerous national responses to bioterrorism, depending upon the mission of an agency. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others have identified and categorized biologic agents that potentially could be used as weapons based on the criteria of public health impact, ease of dissemination or transmission, requirements for public health preparedness, and social disruption. NIH has created eight national Bioinformatics Resource Centers to speed research on the target agents. Several National Academy studies have dealt with issues related to bioterrorism, life sciences, and security.

The Bioforensic Analysis Program, National Bioforensics Analysis Center, has also been created as part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and operates in partnership with the FBI. To help identify the most pressing gaps in the science and operation of microbial forensics, there was a meeting this past spring sponsored by DHS, with the results reported to the White House. The FBI-led Scientific Working Group on Microbial Genetics and Forensics has identified gaps requiring investments for research, development, and validation.

Input from the scientific community should be avidly sought, said Murch. "Our traditional system of robust scientific inquiry and peer review is essential to developing an effective national microbial forensic capability. At the same time, lessons learned from the traditional forensic community for comprehensive quality assurance guidelines should be adapted to build a base of acceptance, credibility. and reliability for addressing this next grand forensic challenge."

Murch will present the paper, "Biothreat agent forensics: Seeking attribution using an adaptive, integrated approach (ComSci 6)," at 11:30 a.m. Monday, March 14, in Convention Center room 25C.

The topic is also addressed in an article recently accepted for Applied and Environmental Microbiology, "Toward a System of Microbial Forensics: from Sample Collection to Interpretation of Evidence," by Bruce Budowle of the FBI, Steven E. Schutzer, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; Michael S. Ascher, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LNL); Ronald M. Atlas, University of Louisville; James P. Burans, DHS; Ranajit Chakraborty, University of Cincinnati; John J. Dunn, Brookhaven National Laboratory; Claire M. Fraser, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR); David R. Franz, Midwest Research Institute; Terrance J. Leighton, Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute; Stephen A. Morse, CDC; Murch; Jacques Ravel, TIGR; Daniel L. Rock Department of Agriculture, Orient, NY; Thomas R. Slezak and Stephan P. Velsko, LNL; Anne C. Walsh, New York State Department of Health,; and Ronald A. Walters, Intelligence Technology Innovation Center.

Susan Trulove | EurekAlert!
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