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Microbial forensics report recommendations on outbreak analysis
In a similar way to the use of human DNA forensic evidence in criminal trials, the new discipline of microbial forensics involves use of microbial genetic information to answer questions about disease outbreaks. Microbial forensics shares challenges with other disciplines including medicine and public health. A new report from the National Research Council in the USA establishes a set of research priorities that are needed to optimise the capabilities of microbial forensic methods and tools for identification of biothreats and attribution of sources and causes. The challenges exist in basic science, technologies, analytic methods, data sharing, and training and education and stretch across international boundaries, necessitating adoption of a harmonised approach between nations.

Microbial outbreaks can occur for a range of reasons from natural outbreaks and accidental releases from laboratories to criminal acts including biocrimes directed against individuals or small groups and full-scale bioterrorism or biowarfare. There is a need to test and validate methods for identifying the source of an outbreak and distinguishing between more common events like natural outbreaks, usually first identified via the public health infrastructure, and rare events like bioterrorism where the full range of microbial forensics techniques are likely to be needed. The report identifies three key sets of needs, in which biotechnological research would play an important role.

One set of needs relates to those that are very technologically challenging or require long lead times. For example, there is a lack of basic information about a lot of microbes that would be essential in order to have confidence in methods for distinguishing between causes of any outbreaks. A coordinated international effort would be needed for identification, monitoring and characterisation of microbial species, beginning with the known ones and expanding to encompass close relatives and emerging pathogens. This would include sharing of data via establishment of more systematic and comprehensive reference collections and databases.

A second set of needs relates to capitalising on ongoing efforts common to both microbial forensics and public health, for example research on pathogenicity and immune responses; improvements in global monitoring and surveillance of diseases in humans, plants, and animals; improved international access to molecular diagnostic techniques; and refinement of evidence evaluation via bioinformatics and statistical methods.

A final set of needs relates to those with either relatively short lead times to make substantial progress or that can capitalise on existing markets to incentivise industry to produce what is required. Examples would be developing faster, cheaper, and more reliable sequencing technologies, compilation of all protocols with information on whether and how they were validated, and expanded technical training.

The report findings recommend development of international agreements and standards in microbial forensics, with an international framework that rewards data sharing while respecting security and law enforcement concerns.

Study sponsors: U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of State, and National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.


Press release: National Academy of Sciences; available from [Accessed 10 June 2014].
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