WASHINGTON Much as human DNA can be used as evidence in criminal trials, genetic information about microorganisms can be analyzed to identify pathogens or other biological agents in the event of a suspicious disease outbreak. The tools and methods used to investigate such outbreaks belong to an emerging discipline known as microbial forensics, but the field faces substantial scientific and technical challenges, says a new report from the National Research Council. The report offers an initial set of research priorities for advancing the capabilities needed to make microbial forensics a more effective tool for identifying and attributing the sources of biothreats. Many of these challenges are shared by other disciplines, such as medicine and public health, so bridging the gaps in microbial forensics could also strengthen capabilities and knowledge in these other areas, the report adds.
Biological outbreaks can include natural occurences, accidental or negligent releases from laboratories, biocrimes aimed at individuals or small groups, or acts of bioterrorism and biowarfare intended to affect large populations. In all scenarios, the primary goal of microbial forensics and the public health system is to protect the health and safety of the public, which requires that the microorganism be identified quickly and its source located to stop further cases of exposure. However, the methods and processes involved in microbial forensics investigations must also meet legal standards for evidence for use in law enforcement or for policy decisions when outbreaks cross national boundaries.
Events that require application of the full range of microbial forensics techniques, such as an act of bioterrorism, are likely to be rare. Natural and accidental infectious disease outbreaks occur more frequently, and most will first be recognized through the public health infrastructure. By creating, testing, and validating methods that are compatible with both rare a
|Contact: Lauren Rugani|
National Academy of Sciences