Bioforensics Analysis Research and Development Center created at Los Alamos

August 30, 2005

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., August 29, 2005 -- In October 2001, "anthrax- letters" laden with B. anthracis bacteria spores appeared in various locations around the nation. To help authorities trace the source of the deadly letters, bioforensic analysts, Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists among them, worked diligently to pinpoint the specific strain of bacteria used. This summer, recognizing Los Alamos' technical capabilities, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) allocated $4 million for a new research and development program in bioforensics under the sponsorship of the National Bioforensic Analysis Center (NBFAC) of the DHS. To meet this challenge, Los Alamos has consolidated its subject matter expertise and bioforensic research and development capabilities to form the Los Alamos Bioforensics Analysis Research and Development Center.

The new center will work to develop, evaluate and validate novel methods and techniques that can be used to support bioforensic analysis for the NBFAC. Bioforensics involves examining traces of a biological agent from a bioterrorism act, biocrime or investigation as well as naturally occurring biological agent release. The research and development work at the center will enable bioforensic analysts to answer crucial questions such as what kind of biological agent was used, where and when it was made, and how it was prepared.

Through the use of several different technologies, researchers involved in bioforensics will develop, evaluate and validate the tools needed to characterize specific information about an agent that will help to determine whether it was released intentionally or appears naturally in the environment.

The programs of the Los Alamos Bioforensics Analysis Research and Development Center, involving approximately 30 individuals, focus on a triad of specialized areas of bioforensic-analysis research and development. Researchers in the first program work to develop and identify molecular signatures of agents to develop genotyping tools. The second program focuses on developing techniques for identifying unique chemical and physical signatures of agents for clues about a sample's formulation. In the third program, researchers address issues involved in sample management, such as method standardization.

"The Bioforensics Analysis Research and Development Center provides organizational focus and makes our capabilities in bioforensics more accessible to the sponsors," said Los Alamos' Babetta Marrone, principal investigator on the effort. Researchers involved in bioforensic analysis are using a collection of laboratories in the Bioscience Division that are already dedicated to this and related research.

"Physically, the labs are set up to consolidate activities that have special requirements, such as work with select Biosafety Level-2 agents" said Marrone. Biosafety levels are defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biosafety Level-2 containment and practices are standard for work involving infectious agents that can cause moderate hazards and for which treatment is available.

The Department of Homeland Security's NBFAC effort was created to improve coordination across agencies responding to bioterrorism. At Los Alamos, the new center is configured to reflect the organization of the NBFAC and is conducting research and development to develop, evaluate and validate techniques that can be used in bioforensic analysis through the NBFAC operational program. This type of arrangement enables the Los Alamos center to be better aligned with the national center and other sponsors of bioforensic work. This affiliation ensures that response to a biological threat agent provides what Marrone described as "a faster translation of new discoveries into operations."

The Bioscience Division at Los Alamos has more than 200 researchers and technicians as a resource for national biological science needs. Past achievements for which the Lab has been credited include the development of the science of flow cytometry, fundamental work evolving into the Human Genome Project, advances in the genetic analysis of pathogens and more.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the National Nuclear Security Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy and works in partnership with NNSA's Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories to support NNSA in its mission. Los Alamos enhances global security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to defense, energy, environment, infrastructure, health and national security concerns.

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