When investigating potential chemical and biological (CB) threats, the stakes are high. Investigations often start with a lot of unknowns: What is this substance? Is it hazardous? Is it biological or chemical? Where did it come from?
Traditional analytical methods are good at confirming the presence or absence of a particular agent or substance. If a sample is believed to contain Bacillus anthracis, standard biological analysis will quickly determine whether or not this is the case. But it will not provide insight into its virulence, origin or how it might have been manipulated. And if the sample turns out to be something other than B. anthracis, it will not tell you what it actually is.
The answer to “Is this in there?” is much different than the answer to “What’s in there?”
An integrated approach to CB forensics provides investigators with richer information. Integrated forensics combines advanced forensic science technologies to provide more comprehensive and timely technical intelligence:
- Advanced genomic analysis: Massively parallel sequencing (MPS) can be used to identify all of the organisms in a sample down to the strain level, indicate whether the agent is of natural origin, genetically altered or contains antibiotic resistance genes. These clues can be used for attribution to particular laboratories or regions of the world. MPS can also be used to identify any human DNA in the sample, which can provide important forensic information including gender, ancestry, and phenotype even if no matches are found in forensic databases.
- Advanced chemical analysis: Gas chromatography and high resolution mass spectrometry can be used to characterize unknown samples to determine what chemicals and proteins are present. For biological agents, chemical analysis provides additional information, such as the presence of toxins or formulation agents, including unique contaminants that may help identify the method of production.
Specialized processes must be used for integrated forensics. Standard extraction methods for biological analysis make the sample unusable for chemical analysis, and vice versa; simply dividing an already small, highly valuable sample is not always an option.
Battelle has developed a process to systematically triage samples and integrate biological and chemical forensics, as well as developing and testing new technologies to help investigators more quickly identify and characterize biological agents, including new, emerging and synthetic agents, to glean more forensic information from the samples. These techniques will help ensure that military and homeland security investigators are ready for the challenges ahead.
To learn more, join Battelle at the 10th Annual CBRNE Convergence Congress & Exhibition for the plenary session “Integrated Approach to Biological Forensics” presented by Battelle’s Michael Dickens, Ph.D.
Article courtesy of Battelle, adapted. Global Biodefense is an official media partner of CBRNE Convergence 2017.