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Forensics bringing bacteria into the courtroom

DENVER, CO If bioterrorists are ever brought to trial, the evidence against them will depend on the painstaking work of a detective in a lab coat.

But will it be worth the effort?

Scientists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) warn that such evidence will not be admissible unless researchers develop new molecular methods, such as genome sequencing, and adopt standardized methods and data.

"Today, there are cases that are more likely to come up in court. As a discipline, we need to be prepared," said Abigail Salyers, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Let's be thinking ahead so we don't have an O.J. Simpson situation where the validity of the tests used to gather certain evidence (becomes) the focal point of a trial. We must put into place quality control and standards that provide proper validation and interpretation, so microbial evidence involving genetic information will be viewed acceptable in a courtroom."

Citing the recent attacks of anthrax sent through the mail, and the potential for other acts of bioterrorism, Salyers and her colleagues at a session held during the AAAS Annual Meeting called for the development of a comprehensive microbial forensics infrastructure.

In microbial forensics, researchers work to track down the source of a pathogen, whether in a criminal investigation of bioterrorism attacks or a study of naturally occurring disease outbreak, looking for molecular microbial signatures. These signatures are detected by measuring the polymorphisms, or variations, between microbial strains and are used to infer the origin, relationship, or transmission route of a particular isolate.

Recently, microbial forensics has been used in cases such as the alleged transmission of HIV from a Florida dentist to several patients. By sequencing viral fragments from the dentist and infected patients, they were able show that he most likely infecte
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