The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Microbial forensics talk warns NE

By Megan Saint-John/reporter

New technology and application of microbiology benefit forensic investigations of crime and war, a guest speaker told NE students last week.

Phillip Williamson presented students with developments in technology for thread identification and source attribution in microbial forensics, sponsored by biology and nutritional sciences and student activities. The director of the Institute of Investigative Genetics also teaches in the microbial forensics program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

Biocrime is the use of a microorganism as a weapon when organized by a single person, and bioterrorism is when the attack is organized by a group, Williamson said. Signs of a microbiological attack are many reports of diseases unusual for a certain place, population and age group, Williamson said.

Williamson used the anthrax attack in October 2001 as an example of bioterrorism (even though there was only one suspect behind the attack). Williamson said 22 infections and five deaths from anthrax spread through the U.S. postal system.

“Biowar through history has been pretty well-documented,” he said.

Microbial forensics has many different facets to consider when investigating an act of biocrime or bioterrorism, Williamson said.

“Even if you assume it is a biological attack, there are chemical and radiological measures that must be looked into,” he said.

Other concerns of microbial forensics include the ease of access to DNA synthesis and collection of microbiology evidence that may interfere with crime scene evidence, Williamson said.

“Swabbing for bacteria could smear a fingerprint, and dusting for fingerprints could remove microbial evidence,” he said.

Therefore, careful planning of an investigation is critical when it comes to biocrime, Williamson said. The magnitude of microbiology also causes concern. More than 1,000 agents can affect humans, he said.

Williamson said it is necessary to understand the type of technology used for microbial forensics. If incorrect results are shared, it could ruin the reputation of microbial forensics, which is not formalized yet. The TIGER process is a whole genome sequencing technology that works backward to uncover all types of genetic differences in DNA, Williamson said.

“You can resolve organisms you’ve never seen before, which is very important to an investigation,” he said.

Williamson said errors exist in the TIGER process, but another technology known for having fewer errors is the SOLiD system, he said. A single difference comes out of 5.5 million bases, which is acceptable for using as evidence in an investigation, he said.

Genome sequencing is now becoming less expensive and time-consuming, he said. With the SOLiD system, it costs $1,000 per strand and takes three-and-a-half days with an analysis time of one or two days. In eight years, technology has developed to be less expensive and able to do things never done before in microbial research, Williamson said.

“We utilize technology not only for investigations, but for public health and epidemics,” he said.

Williamson said government is more willing to fund research focused on security against bioterrorism, but the research can also be applied to general health care.

People interested in a career in the field do not need a doctorate in microbiology unless interested in a director’s position, Williamson said. Most forensic investigators are master’s level students, he said.

He also suggested students leave windows open for changing a career within the scientific field in case it is not what was expected.

“Pursue a career, commit to a field of focus like microbiology, but don’t just limit yourself to microbiology classes,” he said.

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