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Plant-Pathogenic Bacteria as Biological Weapons -- Real Threats?

October 2008 , Volume 98 , Number  10
Pages  1,060 - 1,065

J. M. Young, C. Allen, T. Coutinho, T. Denny, J. Elphinstone, M. Fegan, M. Gillings, T. R. Gottwald, J. H. Graham, N. S. Iacobellis, J. D. Janse, M.-A. Jacques, M. M. Lopez, C. E. Morris, N. Parkinson, P. Prior, O. Pruvost, J. Rodrigues Neto, M. Scortichini, Y. Takikawa, and C. D. Upper

First author: Landcare Research, Private Bag 92170, Auckland, New Zealand; second and twenty-first authors: Department of Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin, Madison 53706; third author: Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute, University of Pretoria, Pretoria 0002, South Africa; fourth author: Department of Plant Pathology, University of Georgia, Athens 30602-7274; fifth and fifteenth authors: Central Science Laboratory, Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, Sand Hutton, York, YO41 1LZ, United Kingdom; sixth author: School of Molecular and Microbial Sciences, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia; seventh author: Genes to Geoscience Research Centre, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia; eighth author: U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fort Pierce, FL 34945; ninth author: University of Florida, Citrus Research and Education Center, Lake Alfred 33850; tenth author: Università degli Studi della Basilicata, Dipartimento di Biologia, Difesa e Biotecnologie Agro-Forestali, 85100 Potenza, Italy; eleventh author: Department of Laboratory Methods and Diagnostics, Dutch General Inspection Service, P.O. Box 1115, 8300 BC Emmeloord, The Netherlands; twelfth author: UMR 077 PaVé, INRA, F-49071 Beaucouzé, France; thirteenth author: Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Agrarias, 46113 Moncada, Valencia, Spain; fourteenth author: UR 407 Pathologie Végétale, INRA, F-84140 Montfavet, France; sixteenth and seventeenth authors: CIRAD, UMR Peuplements Végétaux et Bioagresseurs en Milieu Tropical CIRAD-Université de la Réunion, Pôle de Protection des Plantes, 97410 Saint Pierre, La Réunion, France; eighteenth author: Laboratorio de Bacteriologia Vegetal, Centro Experimental do Instituto Biologico, Cx. Postal 70, 13001-970-Campinas, S.P., Brazil; nineteenth author: C.R.A.-Centro di Ricerca per la Frutticoltuta, 00134 Roma, Italy; and twentieth author: Faculty of Agriculture, Shizuoka University, Shizuoka, 422-8529, Japan.

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Accepted for publication 4 June 2008.

At present, much attention is being given to the potential of plant pathogens, including plant-pathogenic bacteria, as biological weapons/bioterror weapons. These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably and there is need for care in their application. It has been claimed that clandestine introduction of certain plant-pathogenic bacteria could cause such crop losses as to impact so significantly on a national economy and thus constitute a threat to national security. As a separate outcome, it is suggested that they could cause serious public alarm, perhaps constituting a source of terror. Legislation is now in place to regulate selected plant-pathogenic bacteria as potential weapons. However, we consider it highly doubtful that any plant-pathogenic bacterium has the requisite capabilities to justify such a classification. Even if they were so capable, the differentiation of pathogens into a special category with regulations that are even more restrictive than those currently applied in quarantine legislation of most jurisdictions offers no obvious benefit. Moreover, we believe that such regulations are disadvantageous insofar as they limit research on precisely those pathogens most in need of study. Whereas some human and animal pathogens may have potential as biological or bioterror weapons, we conclude that it is unlikely that any plant-pathogenic bacterium realistically falls into this category.

© 2008 The American Phytopathological Society