JASON Proposes a “Library of Congress” for Pathogens

In order to help determine the origins of microbial threats in terrorist incidents or epidemics, it would be useful to have a deep archive of various strains of lethal bacteria, the JASON defense advisory panel told the National Counterproliferation Center in a newly released 2009 report (pdf).

Because of the natural variation in the microbes of interest, “we believe that a ‘Library of Congress’ for microbial pathogens is needed,” the JASONs said.

“This library would consist of strains collected worldwide by methods that preserve sample properties, and capture all relevant data (e.g. geolocation, local environmental conditions). It should include laboratory isolates, natural isolates, and DNA sequence data.”

Actually, it seems that the nucleus of such a library already exists.

“We were impressed with the efforts of the National Bioforensic Reference Collection along these lines.  The NBRC was initiated in October 2005 to receive and store reference materials for forensic analyses.  It currently has more than 30,000 samples of bacteria, viruses, and toxins, from both select and non-select agents, and is authorized to handle classified materials,” the JASONs said.

The JASON report assesses the current state of “microbial forensics,” which refers to the characterization of microbe samples in terrorism or law enforcement cases to establish their origins.

For reasons explained in the report, the forensic task is not a simple one.  In fact, “it is never possible to definitively link a sample to an attack based on genetic evidence alone.”

A copy of the JASON report was obtained by the Federation of American Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act.  See “Microbial Forensics,” JASON report JSR-08-512, May 2009.