Rice University researchers developing genomic test for lab pathogens

Researchers at Rice University have been given federal support in their development of a genomic test that can quickly determine if a disease outbreak is the result of pathogens grown in a lab by terrorists.

The three year Defense Threat Reduction Agency grant is meant to provide both homeland security and public health officials with the necessary tools  to quickly determine the correct response to outbreaks.

"In a natural outbreak, there are classic rules of epidemiology that describe how particular types of diseases will spread," principal investigator Yousif Shamoo, an associate professor of biochemistry and cell biology and director of Rice's Institute for Biosciences and Bioengineering, told RDMag.com. "In a man-made outbreak, you may be faced with an actor who is continuously spreading the disease, or you might have a person who's engineered strains knowing public health strategy."

The project aims to find specific markers within an organism that would show that it was accustomed to living in a biology lab. Because of how bacteria evolve, which involves hundreds of generations in only a few weeks, they rapidly adapt to new conditions and show domestication from living in labs.

"Living out in the wild is a pretty rough existence," Shamoo told RDMag.com. "By comparison, life in the laboratory is very posh. You live in very nice conditions on agar plates eating this very rich media. And it's the same diet every day. Our expectation is that organisms will lose certain genes that allow them to get nutrition from the soil or the gut or wherever they came from, simply because they won't need them anymore."

For the DTRA project, wild strains of the common bacteria Enterococcus faecalis and Escherichia coli will be domesticated. Genomic snapshots of each will be taken during the process, allowing analyzation of the process.

If genetic patterns that are associated with domestication can be identified within each of the bacteria, Shamoo said, the same patterns will likely be present in other bacteria.