Public Release: 

Microbial forensics: An overview (news briefing and symposium)

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

DENVER -- On the popular television shows involving crime-scene-investigation units in Las Vegas and Miami, small traces of just about anything have been found and used to reel in criminal confessions. Note, however, viewers don't see the cases in court.

The real world, says microbiologist Abigail Salyers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is just now coming to grips with the world of microbial evidence. Specifically, she says, standardized methods and acceptable means of quality control need to be established so that in a court of law any microbial evidence -- anthrax spores, for instance -- that link to a suspect are worthy of consideration by judges and juries.

Salyers, while president of the American Society for Microbiology, latched onto the issue amid the anthrax scare that followed Sept. 11, 2001, by pulling together microbiologists from various disciplines to discuss the issue in a Critical Issues Colloquia.

The group's report, to be available at ASM's Web site (, was discussed in part today during a news conference and a symposium Salyers organized for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The gathering of microbial evidence from criminal or civil cases involving such things as anthrax, HIV-AIDS and Staphylococcus epidermidis already is occurring and will continue to do so amid an explosion of scientific technology that makes it possible, she said.

"Today, there are cases that are more likely to come up in court. As a discipline, we need to be prepared," Salyers said. "Let's be thinking ahead so we don't have an O.J. Simpson situation where the validity of the tests used to gather certain evidence doesnÕt become the focal point of a trial. We must put into place quality control and standards that provide proper validation and interpretation so microbial evidence involving genetic information will be viewed acceptable in a courtroom."

That microbes may become hard evidence in criminal cases is easy to understand in light of advances in molecular technology, Salyers said. She noted an explosion of new insights on microbial life, down to the levels of DNA and RNA, the message-carriers of the code of life, through genome sequencing, bioinformatics and comparative genomics. Genome sequencing was used on the anthrax spores found in letters mailed to Congress and the media after Sept. 11, she said.

But such technologies have not been established under the realm of precedence that is needed to assure reliability in a court of law, Salyers said. The task is daunting, she added, noting the challenge of connecting a bacterium found at a crime scene and definitively linking it to a suspect. "There are so many different kinds of bacteria in the microbial world, where there are billions of them. This diversity is much greater than in just the hundreds commonly found in humans," she said.

Salyers chaired a Sunday afternoon session on "Microbial Forensics: A Scientific Assessment." General issues and more specific situations involving anthrax in bioterrorism and pathogens such as HIV-1 were addressed by Salyers, FBI scientist Bruce Bodowle, Joseph Campos of the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University and Bette Korber of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Salyers, Bodowle, Campos and Keim participated in the news briefing.


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