Since the anthrax mail attacks of 2001, law enforcement agencies have processed thousands of suspicious mail incidents globally, many of which are hoax bioterrorism threats. Bio-insecticide preparations containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spores have been involved in several such threats in Australia, leading to the requirement for rapid and sensitive detection techniques for this organism, a close relative of Bacillus anthracis. Here we describe the development of a quantitative PCR (qPCR) method for the detection of Bt crystal toxin gene cry1, and evaluation of the method's effectiveness during a hoax bioterrorism event in 2009. When combined with moist wipe sampling, the cry1 qPCR was a rapid, reliable, and sensitive diagnostic tool for detecting and quantifying Bt contamination, and mapping endospore dispersal within a mail sorting facility. Results from the cry1 qPCR were validated by viable counts of the same samples on Bacillus-selective agar (PEMBA), which revealed a similar pattern of contamination. Extensive and persistent contamination of the facility was detected, both within the affected mailroom, and extending into office areas up to 30. m distant from the source event, emphasising the need for improved containment procedures for suspicious mail items, both during and post-event. The cry1 qPCR enables detection of both viable and non-viable Bt spores and cells, which is important for historical crime scenes or scenes subjected to decontamination. This work provides a new rapid method to add to the forensics toolbox for crime scenes suspected to be contaminated with biological agents.
- Bacillus anthracis
- Bacillus thuringiensis