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 30m 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.
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