According to Jacqueline Fletcher, plant pathology professor, Oklahoma State University, the potential for microbes to be used with an intent to harm people, societies, or the environment has generated renewed interest in the application of forensic science to assist in precise identification of microbes and their origin. "If a plant disease agent were used for bioterrorism, we would like to trace it to its source. This could help us prevent it from happening again," said Fletcher.
The usual goal of a plant pathologist, which is to effectively manage a disease outbreak, requires identification of a disease agent (pathogen) that is accurate to species or strain. Species-level identification is important in order to understand the disease's epidemiology. Forensic applications, however, require an even higher level of detail and discrimination. "If the goal is to attribute the crime to a specific perpetrator, data must be sufficiently specific to stand up in a court of law," said Fletcher.
New research is needed to expand knowledge on the genetics, evolution, biology, and host reactions of key microbes. "Guidelines for sample collection and attention to non-pathogen contaminants, such as spores or other microorganisms in the samples, are necessary. Research guidelines and policies also ought to be designed to allow legitimate investigators to pursue research without unnecessary intrusion," Fletcher said.
More on how forensics can be applied to plant health and crop security will be presented during the Microbial Forensics: Plant Pathogen Models symposium at the APS Annual Meeting in Anaheim, Calif., July 31 -- August 4, 2004. The symposium will explore the principles of microbial forensics as they may apply to specific m
Contact: Amy Steigman
American Phytopathological Society