Case Creates New Branch of Science
WASHINGTON – The anthrax killer spurred a whole new branch of science that could give the nation a head start in the next emergency – whether it’s investigating more bioterrorism or even a food poisoning outbreak.
It’s called microbial forensics, a way of using a germ’s genetics to help exonerate or incriminate much as human DNA can today.
Microbes, whether bacteria or viruses, have unique genetic signatures that can allow scientists to tell even the most closely related strains apart. The forensics side comes from adding crime- investigation techniques to this advanced microbiology used by disease detectives.
With anthrax, that science led to a flask of bacteria deemed the genetic parent of the spores grown for the 2001 attacks. It then took detective work for the FBI to finger its owner, Dr. Bruce Ivins, while ruling out others at his Fort Detrick, Md., laboratory, where the flask was stored.
If tracing a vial of germs sounds impressive, consider: Research under way might one day allow tracing where someone has recently traveled by the DNA of bacteria in the dirt on their shoes.
But microbial forensics is a fledgling field, apparently used in court only once before – in the attempted-murder conviction of a Louisiana doctor who injected a former lover with HIV taken from one of his patients.
The far more complicated anthrax case could prove pivotal in establishing the credibility of microbial forensics. Thus, scientists are clamoring to see the full evidence. The FBI hasn’t yet released the actual genetic test results.
Originally published by Associated Press.
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