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Fall 2014 Vol. 14 Number 1

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The Promise of Microbial Forensics

Building a Better Toolbox Against Biological Pathogens

With the popularity of police procedural TV series such as "CSI" and "NCIS," many people are familiar with the power of DNA as a tool to identify and convict criminals, exonerate the innocent, and identify missing persons.

Much as human DNA can be used as evidence in criminal trials, genetic information about microorganisms can also be analyzed to identify their possible origins. The tools and methods used to investigate these organisms -- and the serious threats they pose -- belong to the emerging field known as microbial forensics. Used to examine biological outbreaks ranging from deliberate acts of bioterrorism to the accidental release of a microorganism to the rise of a natural and virulent pathogen, microbial forensics can help officials prevent further cases of exposure by quickly identifying both the dangerous microorganism and its source.

Despite its promise, however, the field is still in the early stages of development. It faces substantial scientific challenges in providing a robust suite of technologies to identify the source of biological threats, says a new report from the National Research Council.

The report emphasizes the importance of creating, testing, and validating methods that are compatible with rare incidents, such as bioterrorism or accidental releases, as well as common outbreaks due to natural causes. This way, detection and response are not delayed by the absence of or unfamiliarity with diagnostic protocols and tools.

One of the largest hurdles in the development of this field is the prospect of long timeframes. There are particular goals that will likely take years to fully realize due to technologically challenging circumstances. For example, there is a crucial need for the development of high-confidence methods to distinguish among natural, accidental, and deliberate disease outbreaks. In addition, a more comprehensive database of microorganisms and their basic information has yet to be established.

Objectives that can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time include the development of faster, cheaper, and more reliable sequencing technologies, the compilation and validation of protocols used for sampling and sequencing, as well as the expansion of technical training to increase the number of qualified practitioners.

The report also calls for collaboration among international scientific communities to identify, monitor, and characterize global microbial species. This effort would benefit the entire discipline of microbial forensics and help reduce complications that often arise when an investigation crosses international boundaries.

-- Christina Anderson & Lauren Rugani

Science Needs for Microbial Forensics: Developing Initial International Research Priorities. Committee on Science Needs for Microbial Forensics: Developing an Initial International Roadmap, Board on Life Sciences, Division on Earth and Life Studies, in cooperation with the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, U.K. Royal Society, and International Union of Microbiological Societies (2014, 252 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-30245-6; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $56.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study committee was chaired by John D. Clements, professor and chair of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans. The study was funded by the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of State, and National Academy of Sciences.

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