Traditionally, crime investigation has been the responsibility of law enforcement alone, but police and forensic experts are now being forced to confront the new biocrime challenge by partnering with the scientific community.
The anthrax attacks and subsequent public reactions revealed the need for a law enforcement infrastructure with adequate analytical tools, and a knowledge base ample enough to rapidly provide investigative leads and help determine who was responsible for the crime, what the source of the agent was, and how and where the weapon was produced.
"While there are a few well-developed practices for handling and analyzing pathogenic agents, most of these assays address epidemiological concerns and do not provide sufficient information on the strain or isolate to allow law enforcement to identify the source of the evidence sample," says the FBI's Bruce Budowle in a 2003 Science magazine article.
Additional analysis methods for individualization of microbial strains is needed, Budowle says.
For example, determining the microbe sent in a letter as B. anthracis identifies the causative agent. At this point, anyone with access to B. anthracis could potentially be considered a suspect. But determining it was the Ames strain — an uncommon strain in nature — limits the investigation only to those who had access to that specific strain.
"All of this must be defined adequately and validated sufficiently to meet forensic needs," Budowle explains in the paper. "Combating bioterrorism is a challenge to us all."
The problem is there aren't many laboratories with adequate biocontainment facilities to handle forensic cases. And so far there is little to be encouraged about on the logistics and financial fronts required to construct microbial forensics laboratories or even to retool existing partner labs to perform microbial forensic work.
The FBI has led the effort to address these issues. In 2002 it initiated the Scientific Working Group on Microbial Genetics and Forensics (SWGMGF), whose goal was to provide an avenue for government, academia and private sector scientists to develop guidelines related to the operation of microbial forensics.
There is precedent for this FBI action. The agency has spawned scientific working groups for other forensic disciplines, most notably the 1995 Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods, whose success can be seen by the common use of DNA analysis in crime labs, the establishment of standards and the wide spread acceptance of DNA analysis in the courts.
SWGMGF issued a 2003 report, "Microbial Forensics: Establishing Foundations in an Evolving New Field to Respond to Bioterrorism," calling for a dedicated national system to analyze evidence from a bioterrorism act, biocrime or inadvertent microorganism/toxin release.
Since then the federal government has formalized the discipline of microbial forensics. The DHS established NBFAC in 2004 as the lead federal facility to conduct technical forensic analysis and interpretation of materials recovered from biocrime or bioterrorist events.
Also, microbial forensic experts participated in a colloquium in 2003 that dealt with evidence gathering, organism identification, organism source tracing and investigative techniques, the findings of which are summarized in the report, "Microbial Forensics: A Scientific Assessment," available online at www.asm.org/academy/index.asp?bid=17994.