National ag biosecurity institute opens in Oklahoma

Call it, “Crime Scene Investigation with an agricultural focus,” courtesy of the new National Institute for Microbial Forensics and Food and Agricultural Biosecurity, headquartered at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

“Events such as mad cow disease, E. coli outbreaks and anthrax contamination of federal mail indicate the relevance of being able to quickly and accurately identify the source and, if applicable, the perpetrators of contamination of agricultural products or disease outbreaks,” says Clarence Watson, associate director of OSU’s statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system.

Jacqueline Fletcher of OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources will serve as director of the institute.

The United States has been keenly aware of establishing preparedness for bioterrorism since the anthrax attacks of 2001, says Robert Allen, chairman of the OSU Center for Health Sciences’ department of forensic science.

“In the last couple of years we have become more aware of the vulnerability of our systems to produce, process and deliver food, not only to our own population but to the populations of the world that we feed,” Allen says.

When plant pathologists do their jobs on an everyday basis, they generally work under the assumption that Mother Nature is responsible for an incident.

“Now, the first question we have to answer is whether or not a crime has been committed,” Fletcher says.

OSU officials and faculty envision the institute as having three components that are state and federally mandated functions of a land-grant university: teaching, research and Extension.

“Initially, we’re going to focus primarily on research,” Fletcher says. “That could mean the development of new technologies or the application of technologies developed in other disciplines which are then used in plant pathogen forensics.”

Fletcher says the teaching element would include training for first responders, Cooperative Extension personnel or law enforcement agents.

Outreach would