Pathologists Ponder Preserving Evidence after Bioterror Attack

If the networks ever roll out CSI: Topeka, there may be an episode devoted to a dying cornfield, stricken by a deadly microbe. Hard-nosed plant pathologists would be called on the scene to determine if this was a case of sabotage.

Researchers in plant pathology usually worry about naturally occurring pathogens, but they are starting to consider how to collect forensic evidence in the event of a possible bioterrorist attack.

"What we normally do is stop the disease as fast as possible," said Jacqueline Fletcher, a plant pathology professor from Oklahoma State University.

Controlling an outbreak might require destroying plants or spraying chemicals, but such actions might inhibit a criminal investigation, in which details about the infestation will be necessary.

"If the goal is to attribute the crime to a specific perpetrator, data must be sufficiently specific to stand up in a court of law," Fletcher said.

According to Fletcher, several countries during the two world wars had programs to develop plant pathogens, particularly for wheat and rice. She knew of no instance where these weapons were used, and she said that the U.S. and others have since signed a treaty banning their development.

Recently, however, coalition forces in Afghanistan found evidence in an Al Qaeda cave for plans to possibly infect an enemy's food supply with wheat rust.

An attack such as this could harm people, disrupt the fragile farming economy and cause lasting damage to the environment. Increased research of possible biological weapons will help plant pathologists identify strains and improve their response.

Fletcher emphasizes that, even if the threat never materializes, "these precautions are things we've needed to do for a long time." They will help protect our food even from chance infections, like when a "tourist brings something in on his shoe."