Microbial Forensics for Attribution of Biological Attacks: How well will it work?

Thursday, March 11, 2010
3:30 PM - 5:00 PM
Reuben W. Hills Conference Room

Since the 2001 anthrax attacks, members of the biosecurity community and US government officials have expressed a growing sense of alarm at the threat of a biological attack.  The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism recently predicted that a terrorist attack involving WMD is likely to take place by 2013 and identified biological terrorism as the most likely contingency.  To counter this threat, increasing emphasis has been placed on the role of microbial forensics in deterring an attack. New infrastructure has been established by the US government to develop capabilities to identify the source of a pathogen used in an attack and identify the perpetrators. However, many open questions remain about the potential efficacy of this approach both from a technological capabilities standpoint and from a deterrence perspective.

Existing technologies can be borrowed from molecular biology to identify elements in a pathogen's DNA, which could help investigators trace it back to a specific source strain. However, these tools are limited, and new methods should be developed to increase confidence in microbial forensics analyses. Moreover, a comprehensive genome database of pathogen strains is necessary for an effective investigation in the event of an attack. Who will cover the costs of sequencing pathogen genome strains to generate such a database? Will there be obstacles to gaining cooperation from academic and government facilities within the United States and internationally?  In the best-case scenario, advances in microbial forensics could enable us to identify the source of a biological attack; would these capabilities effectively deter non-state actors? These questions must be addressed to determine the extent to which microbial forensics programs can meet their stated goals.

Jaime Yassif is a doctoral candidate in the Biophysics Group at UC Berkeley. She is conducting her thesis research in the Liphardt lab, where she studies the dynamics of RNA-binding proteins using a single-molecule technique called plasmon rulers.

Prior to her graduate work, Ms. Yassif worked for several years in science and security policy and arms control.  She began as a research assistant at the Federation of American Scientists, where she contributed to the writing of Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony on radiological weapons and authored a piece on radiological decontamination in Defense News. She then worked as a program officer at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, where she provided support for the organization's four key program areas-Russia/New Independent States, Biological, Regional and Communications-and managed the organization of an international workshop on Global Best Practices in Nuclear Materials Management. This was followed by a fellowship to study the Chinese nuclear posture at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Ms. Yassif holds an MA in Science and Security from the War Studies Department at King's College London, where she wrote her thesis on verification of the Biological Weapons Convention.  She received her bachelor's degree in Biology from Swarthmore College. Ms. Yassif is former president of the student-run Science, Technology and Engineering Policy group at UC Berkeley and a member of Women in International Security.

Martha Crenshaw is a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute, and professor of political science (by courtesy). Her current research focuses on why the United States is the target of terrorism, the effectiveness of counter terrorism policies, and mapping terrorist organizations. Professor Crenshaw served on the Executive Board of Women in International Security and chaired the American Political Science Association (APSA) Task Force on Political Violence and Terrorism. She was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2005-2006. Her edited book, The Consequences of Counterterrorism in Democracies, is being published by the Russell Sage Foundation.