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
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.