Bioforensics, which is sometimes referred to as microbial forensics, or as forensic microbiology, is a developing interdisciplinary field of microbiology devoted to the development, assessment, and validation of methods for fully characterizing microbial samples for the ultimate purpose of high-confidence comparative analyses. It supports attribution investigations involving pathogens or toxins of biological origin used in a biological attack. The bioforensics toolkit includes diagnostic assay systems that can identify infectious agents rapidly, as well as organic and inorganic analytical chemistry, electron microscopy, and genetic engineering. Much of the work must be conducted according to stringent safety and containment protocols, and dedicated laboratories are now under construction. The center’s capabilities enable the identification and/or characterization of biological threats, physical and chemical analyses, and the generation of data that can help in investigations and ultimate attribution. In addition to conducting casework, the center aims to develop and evaluate assays for high-consequence biological agents that threaten humans, animals, and plants, achieve accreditation for bioforensic casework and then continue to expand the scope of accreditation for newly established capabilities, and establish and maintain reference collections of biological agents for comparative forensic identifications.9

Another component of forensic science for homeland security is found in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which coordinates the various elements of the intelligence community. Within that office is a National Counterproliferation Center that also carries out work in bioforensics.10 The considerable threat of the acquisition, development, and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD; chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons) has led U.S. government agencies to develop new forensic science capabilities. In 1996, this development was begun with the establishment of a specialized forensic hazardous materials unit in the FBI Laboratory, which came at a time of greater awareness of and concern over WMD in the hands of terrorists and in preparing for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Interest and investment in this type of capability has diversified and expanded since that time in the FBI as well as in DOD, the Department of Energy, the Intelligence Community, and DHS. The programs described above are visible evidence of the government’s commitment to forensic science and infrastructure as integral components of homeland security. At the time of this writing, the importance of forensic science and its potential for improving the attribution of WMD are also active topics in discussions internationally.




C.L. Cooke Jr., Office of the Deputy Director for Strategy & Evaluation, National Counterproliferation Center. “Microbial Forensics: Gaps, Opportunities and Issues.” Presentation to the committee. September 21, 2007.

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