Microscopic Murder

Dr. Denene Lofland


Our guest expert today on The Graveyard Shift is Dr. Denene Lofland. Dr. Lofland received her PhD degree in pathology from the Medical College of Virginia, and she’s a trained clinical microbiologist. She has served as the Director of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at Wright State University, and has worked in biotech/drug research and development for many years.

Denene has worked on drug development programs for the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).  She contributed to the FDA approval of the gemifloxacin (Factive), an antibiotic for the treatment of bacterial pneumonia, a drug that is now on the market and prescribed by physicians worldwide. She recently served as Manager of North Carolina Operations for a company that conducts high-level research and development in areas such as anti-bioterrorism.

She also supervised several projects, including government-sponsored research which required her to maintain a secret security clearance. Denene has published several articles in scientific journals and recently contributed to the thirteenth edition of Bailey and Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology. She currently serves as Associate Professor in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Touro University.

Microscopic Murder

What’s so interesting about microbiology? Microorganisms were here before man walked the Earth, and they’ll be here after we’re gone. Actually, you would find it difficult to survive without them. Some bacteria, called commensals, live in and on our bodies to our benefit, protecting  us from invading pathogens (disease causing germs), and they produce vitamins.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the bad bugs. They’re responsible for more deaths than cancer, heart attacks, and war. They can disfigure, eat flesh, paralyze, or just make you feel so bad you wish you were dead.

There are four major types of microorganisms: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. They can cause damage directly, or they can release toxins that do the dirty work for them.


HIV virus

E.coli bacteria

Aspergillus (fungi)

Loa loa (parasite) in eye

So, how can your antagonists use microorganisms to kill? They’ll need a fundamental knowledge of microbiology, such as information that’s taught in a basic college course. Next, the bad guy will need a source of bacteria. Microbiology labs all over the world contain bugs of all types.

Biological safety hood for the safe handling of bacteria

Most of these laboratories are locked, so a little B & E would be in order. Or, maybe your antagonist has a connection with a person who has control of the bug of interest. If so, the evil-doer could make what’s known in the trade as a V.I.P. trip. He’d fly to the friend’s lab, place the bug in a plastic vial, hide the vial in his pocket (V.I.P.), and get back on the plane for the trip home.

Once the antagonist has the bug, he has to keep it alive and reproducing. Bacteria are grown on agar plates (food for bugs) in an incubator. In general, bacteria double in number every 20 minutes. So, if you start with just a few bugs, let’s say 10, and allow them to grow overnight…well, you do the math. Once the killer has enough of the bug, then it’s time to deliver it to the intended victim.

Picking up bacteria from agar plate. The brownish-red material is the agar. The grayish coloring at the top of the agar is E.coli bacteria.

Now for a true story. It wasn’t murder, just an unfortunate accident that involved a woman, some green beans, and a home canning jar. Canning jars have lids designed to exhibit a slight indentation in their centers when food is fresh. If the indentation inverts (pops up), the vegetables may be contaminated, and should be discarded.

A woman was preparing dinner for her family and decided to serve some of her home-canned green beans that evening. She picked up a jar of beans, but thought the pop-up didn’t look quite right. So, to satisfy her curiousity, she opened the jar, touched her finger to the bean juice, and tasted it. It tasted fine to her, so she cooked the beans, and served the steaming hot dish to her family. The next day, the woman died, but her family survived. The beans contained botulism toxin, produced by the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum. C. botulinum lives naturally in the soil.

Botulism toxin is one of the most powerful neurotoxins known to man. About 10 ounces could kill everyone on Earth. It works by paralyzing its victim. Why didn’t the other members of the family die? The toxin is inactivated by heat.

33 replies
  1. Terry
    Terry says:

    Hi, Denene — I’m married to a marine biologist, which is the only reason I know diddly about red tide. But in a human, it probably would only cause respiratory problems. But if a major dolphin or manatee die-off is integral to anyone’s plot, he’s your go-to guy.

  2. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hi Terry,

    True, but I don’t know if someone would use toxins from an algal bloom to kill a human. If you’re interested in these plants you should talk to a marine biologist.


  3. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hi Melanie,

    Yes, they are kept in special containment labs known as BL4 (Biosafety level 4). There are very few of these labs in the US and all activities there are closely monitored. These are labs were the researchers must wear specials suits with an air supply. The suits resemble those worn by astronauts. It would be difficult to smuggle anything out because a breach in the suit could result in death.


  4. melanie atkins
    melanie atkins says:

    This is fascinating stuff! I used ricin in a book once, used by bioterrorists. One of my characters died after inhaling it. It was pretty gruesome, but it worked well for the plot. That one got 4 stars in RT.

    What about viruses such as the bird flu and ebola? Aren’t those kept in labs somewhere?


  5. Rhonda Lane
    Rhonda Lane says:

    Gee, whaddya know! A TV show spreading horse manure. Who’da thunk! 🙂

    Thank you, Denene. We appreciate the straight info.

  6. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    I’m back at home so I’ll be posting from Lee’s computer.

    Hi Rhonda,

    The show House is mostly horse manure. They got it so wrong I had to stop watching. But the Anthrax bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) actually live in soil. When there are few nutrients around or the conditions are harsh, the anthrax bugs produce spores. Spores are tough and can be in the environment for years until conditions are more favorable for growth. So when animals graze they can ingest the bacteria or, more likely, the spores. Once the spores are inside the cow/sheep they convert back to the bacteria and cause disease.


  7. Rhonda Lane
    Rhonda Lane says:

    Thank you for joining us here, Denene. What about toxins from farm animals? I remember an episode of House in which a suburban yard still harbored dormant “bugs” left over from the property’s days as a farm. So, I’ve heard that sheep droppings can make anthrax. What about horse manure?

  8. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi Peg,

    You’re welcome. I’ve enjoyed thinking about ways to kill with microorganisms instead of how to make drugs to kill them.


  9. Peg H
    Peg H says:

    Great topic! Thank you, Denene.

    Botulism seems to be the easiest way for the average poisoner these days. Of course the person shouldn’t be known for home canning in order to ‘get away’ with the crime.

    I’m someone just recovering from one of those viruses that just makes you feel so bad you wish you were dead, quickly followed by an allergic reaction to some dried pineapple. Ugh!

    As for Botox injections? I earned every wrinkle I have, thank you very much. I’ll keep them. Wrinkles add character. Imagine how boring the world would look if everyone was as smooth faced as a baby. No laugh lines? No way!

  10. Vivian
    Vivian says:

    Ah, I now have a possible murder weapon: home canned, bad green beans mixed in with some in a refrigerator.

    Thanks for the idea.

    I’m scientifically challenged, but that’s one I could use.


  11. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi Ramona,

    My grandmother always said, “If you live long enough, you get old. But it’s better than the alternative.”


  12. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi wbereswill,

    Botox is injected into a specific muscle or group of muscles so the effects are usually limited to that area. Unwanted side effects are typically seen shortly after injection and subside with a few weeks.

    I agree, no Botox for me.


  13. ramona
    ramona says:

    Hi Denene. Very intriguing ideas you’ve presented here. I was going to cook green beans tonight, but I think I’ll do broccoli, instead.

    I’m with you and Joyce on the anti-Botox. I prefer to be saggy, but living, thank you.

  14. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi Dave,

    I may have a connection who can tell a story or two. We’ve discussed collaborating on one of those spy-thriller type books. But there are other projects ahead of that one.


  15. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi SweetieZ,

    Traveling VIP was more common years ago than now. Typically, a researcher would be visiting an associate for a perfectly legimate reason. While discussing work the visiting scientist would decide to incorporate a strain used in that lab for research back home. So, to make life simple, the bacteria would be placed in a vial and carried back.

    As far as I know, that practice has stopped because of increased national security concerns. Lab security has also increased for researchers working with potential bioterrorism agents. But there are always people who don’t follow the rules.


  16. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Hi Denene,

    Very interesting topic. I lke the way you offer suggestions to the writer of how they can work microorganisms into a story.

    Microbes, terrorism, ricin, CIA, rogue ex-KGB. It can all weave into a pretty good story. All you need is a good story teller. Know any?

  17. SweetieZ
    SweetieZ says:

    Thank you Denene,

    That jar of home made marmalade is now officially frightening me. Even with lid popped in.

    More frightening. If it is “known in the trade” for a “friend” to allow a VIP visit, does said friend think it is for education purposes ? Are they in cahoots with the evil doer ? Isn’t there security both in and out ?

  18. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi Becky,

    It is scary. All you need is a little knowledge, some equipment, and a lab. The labs can be mobile (remember the search for WMD in Iraq) making it easier to go undetected.


  19. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi Elena,

    The whole thing is the virus. The photo is a digitally-enhanced photomicrograph which means the HIV image was greatly magnified and colored so the features would stand out better.


  20. wbereswill
    wbereswill says:

    “If botulism is so deadly, why can people tolerate Botox injections? Do you think eventually the women who are injected will suffer some long term effects? The last thing I’d want to do is have someone inject deadly bacteria into my face!”

    Just look at Pricilla Presley and Joan Rivers. If their faces don’t turn you off on Botox, nothing will.

  21. BeckyLevine
    BeckyLevine says:


    This is great. I had no idea that a basic college bio class could get someone started–that opens up a whole bunch of settings and personalities! The scary thing, too, is how gorgeous some of those bugs look–at least in the photos!

  22. Elena
    Elena says:

    In the photo of the HIV virus, is the entire thing the virus or is it just the hairy doughnuts that are living on a host?

  23. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi Joyce,

    The Botox injections are localized and do paralyze certain facial muscles. One of the unwanted long term side effects is death. A few people have died from the injections. I agree – no toxins in my face please.


  24. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi Sharon,

    Sounds like Naegleria fowleri. These amebae live in freshwater and cause an acute meningoencephalitis. They could live in kool ade or tea. Orange juice is quite acidic so it could kill the ameba. They do have to enter through the nasal passage to cause disease though. How about a nasal spray?


  25. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    It’s about time Lee introduced you to the writing masses.

    This is a great topic. I think I’ve had a few of those bugs that make you wish you were dead.

    If botulism is so deadly, why can people tolerate Botox injections? Do you think eventually the women who are injected will suffer some long term effects? The last thing I’d want to do is have someone inject deadly bacteria into my face!

  26. mrssharron
    mrssharron says:

    Very interesting topic. In the last few years there have been a few deaths related to swimming in stagnant ponds/lakes. Apparently there are micro organisms that enter the body through the nose and mouth and then attack the brain. Are you familiar with these organisms? Could they be harvested and put in someones drinking water (or orange juice/kool ade/ice tea) to kill them?

    Thank you for your insights!


  27. dlofland
    dlofland says:

    Hi wbereswill,

    True, once you identify the bugs you still have to figure out how they got there.


  28. wbereswill
    wbereswill says:

    Great blog. My first novel, A Reason For Dying is about a deadly natural viral outbreak that’s mistaken for bioterrorism.

    Fighting something you can’t see is tough.

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