Expert Report

Science Needs for Microbial Forensics: Developing Initial International Research Priorities (2014)

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Microbial forensics has been defined as "a scientific discipline dedicated to analyzing evidence from a bioterrorism act, biocrime, or inadvertent microorganism or toxin release for attribution purposes," -- where attribution means determining "who did it." This emerging discipline seeks to offer investigators the tools and techniques to support efforts for attribution in the event of a suspicious release of a biological agent. But microbial forensics is still in the early stages of development and faces substantial scientific challenges to provide a robust suite of technologies for identifying the source of a biological threat agent and attributing a biothreat act to a particular person or group. This report, based partly on a workshop held in Zagreb, Croatia, identifies scientific needs that must be addressed to improve the capabilities of microbial forensics to investigate infectious disease outbreaks and provide evidence of sufficient quality to support legal proceedings and the development of government policies.

Key Messages

  • The emerging field of microbial forensics focuses on identifying genetic and other the biological or chemical signatures of microbes to investigate biological crimes. The scientific challenges for microbial forensics would be difficult enough in the law enforcement context of a single nation, but if a suspected deliberate outbreak spanned national boundaries, the challenges would be even greater.
  • Little is known about most of the microbial world -- and much of what we do know comes from the very few microorganisms that can be cultured in laboratories. The dearth of information about the vast majority of microbes represents a major scientific knowledge gap. For example, in the event of a biothreat, scientists need baseline information on the natural abundance and distribution of the pathogen to help figure out if the presence of the pathogen is natural or the result of a deliberate or inadvertent release.
  • The technologies for microbial forensics could aid not only law enforcement and policy makers, but also public health workers in trying to identify the source of infectious disease outbreaks. Expanding capabilities for detecting and responding to the whole spectrum of natural, intentional, and accidental outbreaks of disease -- not just the rare event of a serious biological attack -- will ensure that the relevant tools and procedures are used frequently and available when needed in the event of a bioterrorist attack.
  • Although there are criteria for considering whether a disease outbreak is unusual, determining whether such an event is due to natural, accidental, or deliberate causes, and collecting the information to work through these criteria at the time of an outbreak is likely to be time-consuming and slow. More rapid and effective responses are needed to minimize loss of life, spread of illness, and to thwart criminal or terrorist activity and prevent follow-on attacks, so there is a strong need for the development of high-confidence methodologies to distinguish among natural, accidental, and deliberate outbreaks of infectious disease.
  • All components of a microbial forensics investigation need to be validated --from methods for collection and sampling, preservation and handling, to identification of the agent. Establishing criteria and requirements for validation, and compiling a list of all validated protocols in use (e.g., for sampling, DNA extraction and isolation, and sequencing) would help ensure the quality of microbial forensic evidence.
  • Advances in bioinformatics -- an interdisciplinary field that develops and improves on methods for storing, retrieving, organizing, and analyzing biological data -- are needed to help handle and analyze the huge amounts of data generated by new sequencing methods. Refinement of bioinformatics and statistical methods for evaluating evidence in microbial forensics is needed, including new algorithms that scale to very large data sets.
  • Data sharing -- from biological information on gene sequences to software, protocols, and standard methods for microbial forensics procedures -- is critical. Sharing such data has the potential to promote international collaboration and cooperation among scientists, and, more importantly, inspire innovation. An international body that has the respect of the international political and scientific communities should begin discussions about how to share microbial forensic data soon.
  • Establishing a comprehensive archive of reference materials -- including organisms, nucleic acids, and sequence information -- could facilitate the development of standardized nomenclature and techniques and provide references for genomic comparisons. Such a facility should take advantage of existing models, such as the American Type Culture Collection and the World Data Centre for Microorganisms.
  • Microbial forensics is still a relatively new discipline. Training is needed for a number of purposes, including to increase the availability of trained microbial forensics practitioners, the awareness and preparedness of first responders, and to improve the understanding of policy makers and the public about what microbial forensics is and what it can and cannot accomplish.
  • The authoring committee identified needs to develop microbial forensics further in basic science, technologies, analytic methods, data sharing, and training and education, and grouped them in terms of how difficult it will be to achieve them and whether there are existing efforts that can be drawn upon. The committee also identified a variety of procedural and policy needs, such as common understandings and protocols for collecting and managing samples within and among nations.