Entomology and Plant Pathology
CAPACITY BUILDING FOR NATIONAL AGRICULTURAL BIOSECURITY: THE EMERGING DISCIPLINE OF AGRICULTURAL MICROBIAL FORENSICS
PROGRAM. The US Department of Agriculture recognizes the need for well-trained professionals to fill positions of emerging national need. The USDA Food and Agricultural Sciences National Needs Graduate and Postgraduate Fellowship Grants (NNF) Program supports fellowship programs for outstanding students to obtain Ph.D. or M.S. degrees in areas where there is a national need for the development of scientific and professional expertise at colleges and universities that have demonstrable teaching and research competencies in the food and agricultural sciences. NIMFFAB/OSU's program began in the fall of 2007.
BACKGROUND: There is a critical need, identified by Federal agencies, for research and personnel experience in forensic science related to US plant resources (crops, forests, rangelands). A strong national agricultural biosecurity plan must include microbial forensics and criminal attribution. This NIMFFAB/OSU program targets Sciences for Agricultural Biosecurity by training students for M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural microbial forensics. The training includes coursework in microbial forensics and research in agricultural microbial forensics. Graduates will be placed in appropriate laboratories.
PURPOSE: We have developed an interdisciplinary, cross-departmental graduate program that provides students with knowledge, training and experience in the scientific disciplines and law enforcement issues necessary for a career in agricultural microbial forensics. Our students do graduate research specifically oriented to the emerging discipline of agricultural/plant pathogen forensics, and are disseminating their findings by publications, presentations, and citations by others. Because our graduates will be the first in the U. S. to be trained in a program specifically focused on agricultural/plant pathogen forensics, their placement in the Nation's biosecurity community will significantly enhance U.S. capabilities in this important area.
STUDENT OPPORTUNITIES: The program has supported five National Needs Fellows, three in an M.S. degree program and two in a Ph.D. program (see NIMFFAB Personnel). The Fellows experience cross-disciplinary coursework including Microbial Forensics and related courses. Students engage in research tailored to address an issue in agricultural microbial forensics. They receive training through Summer Internships in forensic and/or plant diagnostic laboratories. Ph.D. students Stephanie Rogers and TeeCie West spent their summer of 2008 doing research at the FBI Laboratory at Quantico, VA, while M.S. student Andrew Taylor worked at a Dallas, TX, company where he assisted in the design of a sampling device for the investigation of agricultural crime. Federal forensic advisors assure relevancy and applicability of the training and research to national needs and evaluate the success of the program.
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STILLWATER, Okla. -- May 26, 2008. A reality of life today is that American agricultural crops are vulnerable. Not just the traditional vulnerabilities of adverse weather or changing markets, and not just the present vulnerabilities presented by escalating fuel costs which in turn are making costs for inputs such as fertilizer reach historic highs.
The newer vulnerabilities come from the present (and future) potential threats to crops, rangeland and forests from plant pathogens. "We're used to thinking that these plant communities are fairly safe," said Jacque Fletcher, professor of plant pathology and Director of the National Institute for Microbial Forensics and Food and Agricultural Biosecurity (NIMFFAB) at Oklahoma State University.
"However, the more we learn," she said, "the less that is true. The simple act of transporting people and goods can accidentally carry disease agents across town or across the country. Natural events such as floods and hurricanes can move pathogens across hundreds or thousands of miles. And while no one likes to admit it, pathogens can be introduced deliberately: an act of vengeance, of economic sabotage, or at worst, as an act of bioterrorism."
As part of the new awareness of plant health vulnerability (long recognized and prepared for in the human and animal health realms), NIMFFAB recently conducted the first of a series of planned plant health emergency exercises.
"This was a small-scale exercise or workshop," Fletcher said. "We brought together people from plant health and law enforcement from the local, state, regional and federal levels to begin to increase our mutual understanding of the approaches, needs and priorities we each bring to the table, so to speak."
Among those brought together were representatives from the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station, the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, the National Plant Diagnostic Network, the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Department of Defense.
"Traditionally, we in the scientific community want to find out what the problem is and how to fix it. But some of what we as scientists would normally do, if the situation turned out to be a criminal act, could wind up harming or destroying evidence critical for law enforcement activities," she said.
After a day of learning about plants and the various key response agencies, attendees spent part of a day in the field. A scenario was created where a pathogen was found in a crop and the participants, in teams comprised of both science and law enforcement members, progressed through four specific learning stations. Through these stations participants learned from OSU personnel, and from one another, how to examine a site for forensic evidence; how to take and preserve plant samples while providing for the all-important chain-of-custody vital to criminal proceedings; how to interview farmers and crop consultants/experts; and lastly, the capabilities, availabilities and limitations of mobile lab facilities.
There were several 'oh, I never thought of that' moments provided for all participants. For one scientist, used to collecting soil samples to check for soil borne pathogens or nematodes, it was realizing that the portion of the soil sample routinely discarded was the very portion potentially most important for law enforcement.
The remainder of the exercise brought participants back to the meeting room where they reviewed what they had learned in the field, then moved on to examining how the process of an "event" might unfold: who would be notified and at what stage. Often characterized by participants as "navigating the alphabet soup of acronyms" of agencies, laboratories, organizations and stakeholders likely to be involved in an actual plant health emergency. Previous sentence not a complete sentence?
"This exercise was a success," Fletcher said,. "Many of the participants said that this workshop brought them much more than they anticipated, and that they wished more of their colleagues and counterparts had been able to participate."
"Their input also helped us identify others who need to be 'at the table' so to speak when we do our next event, "she said, "as well as helping us identify the materials and issues that should be covered."