Bacteria and crime
Written by Dr. T. M. Wassenaar
Tuesday, 23 December 2008 16:38
Would you have thought that there is a connection between bacteria and crime? In fact, there are several. Bacteria can be a weapon, the cause of violence, a tool to solve a crime, and even the subject of a crime.
Bacteria as lethal weapons
Sad but true, biological warfare with deadly bacteria is a real-life scenario. If you want detailed information on this subject, see our special feature file on bioterrorism
. The 'favored' killer-bug is Bacillus anthracis
, causative of Anthrax, followed by Yersinia pesits
, causing bulbonic plague. One historical case was carried out with Salmonella
here is a limited selection of links on biological warfare with bacteria:
Committing a crime with bacteria
There has been a tragic case where a harmless product, tryptophan (an aminoacid sold as a food supplement) was brought on the market with an unknown toxic contaminant in the preparation.
Several people died before the cause was identified. In this case the bacteria used to produce tryptophan were blamed
, although the scientists who manipulated those bacteria are to blame: they had added genes to the bacteria to produce more tryptophan, and the intracellular concentrations reached such high levels that the compound started to react spontaneously with other cel material, leading to a deadly poisonous mixture. A lesson to take care with genetic modification, though the tragic could have been easily prevented by proper controls. In fact, The FBI is on the watch for illegal GMO's
(genetically modified organisms) in foods
. Though mainly interested in modified crop plants, genetically modified bacteria may also be an interesting hunt.
Bacterial infections as a cause of violent acts
Some studies suggest that bacterial infections can lead to criminal behaviour.
Bacteria as a forensic tool
Although not yet commonly used, bacteria present at the site of a crime can give important clues. For instance, bacteria on a body can reveal how long the body has been dead. We now know that every human hand provides a unique bacterial ecosystem. Will one day microbiology be part of forensic science?
Another way how bacteria can help is when they detect illegal substances or toxic compounds, and report their presence as biosensors. Such 'glowing bacteria' can speed up forensic investigations.
Bacteria as the subject of a crime
Bacteria can be the subject of a crime. Suppose a bacterium is patented, and this patent is broken: that would be a criminal act. Natural bacteria can not be patented because they are living organisms. However, genetically modified bacteria can be protected with a patent. (What is a patent?
. In case you're interested: there is a guide how to deposit a patent for microorganisms
. Modern-time Sherlock Holmeses need a microscope instead of a magnifying glass!
Bacteria are even at risk of being stolen. It is unusual, but here have been cases of vials with bacteria being stolen, and often their contents was potentially dangerous. Whether on purpose (as in a case where a scientist wanted to commit suicide with stolen bacteria) or unknowingly (as with missing vials of plague bacteria that cost the lead scientist his job), in such cases microbiology may enter the court room.
And finally, dealing with dirty money is a crime. But did you know it could also give you a bacterial infection? Since most of us handle money on a daily basis without constantly being ill, the risk of infection must be really small, though.
Last Updated on Monday, 07 November 2011 16:48