Have you ever heard about the terrorist attacks of anthrax via mail in 2001 in US that finally ended with Bruce Ivins, the chief suspect in those attacks, committing suicide?

What about tracing microbe sources as in the Salmonella US outbreak?

This is microbial forensics.

Microbial forensics uses biological analysis such as genome sequencing, protein and carbohydrate fingerprinting to figure out the source of a biological agent. 2001 was not the year which witnessed the emergence of microbial forensics. Actually, in 1998 a doctor from Louisiana, who intentionally infected his former mistress with HIV, had a trial in court. But the anthrax attacks were really the reason for the amplification of the role of microbial forensics as it was followed by government funding and developing the sequencing techniques into more cheaper ones.

As a result, microbial forensics is extrapolated to further applications beyond biocrimes. In molecular epidemiology, it will help figuring out the source of food or water borne diseases such as in recent US Salmonella outbreak. The field also is expected to provide help in hospital-acquired infections. Many people sue hospitals every year claiming they got MRSA (methicillin-resistent Staphylococcus aureus) infection from a certain hospital. Tracing the source of the infection will prove whether those people really contracted the infection from the hospital or from any other outside source.

Image source

Reference: Ontogeny

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5 Responses to “Microbial forensics: beyond biocrimes”
  1. That is really interesting but I keep thinking that such procedures sure cost a fortune especially if they were to be applied on a large scale as what happened in the anthrax scare since a lot of people receieved letters containing suspicious white powder…which finally turned out to be perfectly germ-free flour 🙂

  2. Actually for MRSA & Salmonella, they do “Bacteriophage typing”. Phage typing helps in identifying the exact source of infection by subdividing S. typhi (for example) according to its 106 Virulence-phages. It also allows identifying the group of people infected with the same strain. So, hospitals can use this in MRSA infection cases: “Look at the phage typing results.. It’s not our Staph, check the other hospital!”
    There’s also Biotyping (using fermentation reactions) & Plasmid typing (As plasmids vary in their molecular size when separated by electrophoresis on agarose gel)


  3. You are right Radwa,

    it really costs a lot, but on contracting a MRSA infection, people sue hospitals for millions! .you know MRSA infection causes a serious disease and also it requires an expensive treatment.
    For forensic techniques, it is expensive now but it goes cheaper by time.

    For anthrax scare, it needed such attention as it was a biological weapon which killed 5 people and infect another 17. Identifying the suspects was very important whatever it costs.

    Thank you for the information and the useful link, Mariam.

  4. Microbial Infections says:

    I really like your blog for the information that you provide in such a nice way, Thanks

  5. thanks microbial infections, you are always welcome to our blog.

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