Defence Science and Technology Laboratory
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Dstl helps develop national microbial forensics capability

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is leading on the creation of the United Kingdom Microbial Forensics Consortium (UKMFC).

Dstl recently hosted a UKMFC Bioinformatics workshop, attended by over 20 leading bioinformaticians from all sectors and all UK nations, representing the following:

  • human health
  • animal health
  • plant health
  • aquatic health
  • food safety
  • academia

The aims of the workshop were to:

  • leverage knowledge and experience across different sectors
  • understand their perception of biological defence in the UK
  • create collaborative working relationships between the different organisations

The attendees of the workshop considered the strategic aims of the UKMFC and examined what existing computational tools and approaches could help meet this requirement. They also considered what analytical tools the UKMFC would need in the future to address new and emerging areas of concern.

This is the first time bioinformaticians from government genomics laboratories have come together to consider the microbial forensics question. The connections have already led to new cross government collaborations in human, animal and plant pathogen genomics.

Microbial forensics tries to find out whether a biological agent or incident is natural or corrupt from origin. For example, if a pathogen has been deliberately engineered.

An enhanced national microbial forensics capability (as part of the wider Biological Security Strategy) will help mitigate the effects of a biological incident and boost investigative techniques. This new capability will improve the preparedness of the UK from the potential harmful release of biological hazards and act as a deterrent to their use.

Genomics and bioinformatics (the use of computational tools to interpret genetic data) is a core UK strength and will form an important part of the UKMFC.

The Dstl-led UKMFC Bioinformatics Working Group will now begin to evaluate pre-existing bioinformatics workflows which will form the basis of a UKMFC tool suite. This will form an interim operational capability for the UK. The group will also begin trying to understand how data might be shared between organisations, thresholds for alert, and hazard assessments which would inform onward investigations.

An external quality assurance exercise is also planned for Autumn 2024 to evaluate the performance of the interim UKMFC tool suite and be the first step towards the development of fully operational capability, available to all partner laboratories, across the UK.

The UKMFC is a key outcome of the 2023 UK Biological Security Strategy.


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