Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Microbiology blends with Forensics

Welcome back,

          Am a day late in posting my blog for the week. And today i intend to ink a very brief description on an emerging field of microbiology- "Microbial forensics"

Let me give you a scenario.

          A man X holds a grudge on man Y. The best way to eliminate him would be something like to hit him on his head or gun fire etc. But he will be caught by the judicial system (If its good enough!). But then the Man X decides to kill him in a virtually untraceable way (Well not exactly. Thats the theme of this post). He administers the person an infection, lethal enough. Medical report says- "Natural cause of death". Poor microbes to be blamed.

           If you would argue that this hasn't happened to date, well it already has happened not once, but many times (click here for a source on history of biological war). That's were tracing the culprit comes into scene- "Forensics" we call it. But the delivery system was no ordinary methods and hence so blends with microbiology to yield a new science in its own right- "Microbial forensics".

         The investigation of anthrax is one of the finest examples of the effect of biological weaponry. The method by which it was traced and acted upon is the best example of Microbial forensics as a tool. In fact the whole field emerged into its existence from this case. So what's the outline of diagnosis? If its untraceable, then how do we solve it?

              These are one of the few questions that i tried to answer in my (I rather say our) recently published article "Microbial Forensics- Past, Present and Future". Though there are many methods to create biological weapons the common option would be to release microorganism that is potentially pathogenic or may be attenuated to more pathogenic forms and then released into the community which makes it most lethal than any other weapon. And how do we trace? To put in plain english, the method focuses on identifying unique signatures in unique settings. This means when we find something unusual, say for example a lethal infection in a person suddenly on no obvious exposure, a agent that is not prevalent in the place, abnormally behaving organism etc are all indicators of a possible bio-threat.

          As expected from a novel field, its still under development. Many of the needs are yet to be designed and some of the already designed protocols needs to be upgraded. Needless to say we currently are in a position where we can trace many things and nail down the person who has committed the crime. For an amazing case crackdown please refer to the work by Metzker etal.

          Since, i have written the opinion myself and if i post a blog post here on the same thing once again repeating the same words that would look boring. So i encourage you to read the article yourself from the link provided in further reading. But I would like to make a concluding remark. Microbial forensics is a technology that comes with heavy and high expectations on functionality. But there are situations were it wouldn't work. And loop hole are now researched upon and sorted out. 

Further reading

1. Varun C N, Kuruvilla Thomas. S , Furtado Zevita. Microbial forensics- Past, present and Future. International Journal of Biological and Medical Research. 2012; 3(2): 1546-1549. (Link)

2. Gerald H. Learn and James I. Mullins. The Microbial use of HIV forensic. (For a link click here)

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