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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
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Source:American Chemical Society


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