Preparing to Nab Bioterrorists

DENVER--Catching bioterrorists is a tough job--one that has vexed law enforcement officials in the case of the October 2001 anthrax letters that killed five people and paralyzed the U.S. Senate. Now an expert panel has come up with a sweeping set of proposals to boost the nation's ability to solve "biocrimes."

The government is ill-prepared to use forensics to investigate an attack, in part, says panel member and FBI researcher Bruce Budowle, because biocrimes have been extremely rare. Nor are doctors and most public health workers equipped to deal with evidence, because clues that can be of great interest in a criminal investigation--such as a bug's precise genomic makeup--may have little medical or epidemiological value.

The American Academy of Microbiology's report, presented here 16 February at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (ScienceNOW's publisher), outlines ways to detect outbreaks rapidly, handle evidence correctly, and use it to track down and prosecute the perpetrators. For instance, first responders need to learn how to secure evidence, the panel says, and reliable test kits are needed to confirm an outbreak. Because genomic information can help pinpoint the source of an organism, the genomes of at least three different strains of each pathogen that might be used in an attack--and up to 20 strains for the nastiest ones--should be sequenced. To make sure an investigation yields reliable evidence that stands up in court, labs should put in place quality-assurance and -control procedures, the panel says.

The report "is an excellent step," because it makes the "specific tactical recommendations [needed] to push this field forward," says forensics expert Randall Murch of the Institute for Defense Analysis in Alexandria, Virginia, and former deputy director of the FBI forensics lab. But more is needed, he adds, including a national summit to establish microbial forensics as a new scientific discipline that combines expertise in conventional forensics with knowledge from microbial genomics, phylogenetics, and informatics.

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The American Academy of Microbiology