U.S. Army turns to ASU to find origin of explosives by using pollen

Arizona State University officials announced this week that a multimillion dollar, ASU-led research project for the Department of Defense is underway to find methods for using the distinctive genetic signatures of pollen to track the origins of improvised explosive devices and other activities.

Dr. Tony Grubesic will lead an interdisciplinary team of ASU researchers, which includes Drs. Elisa Bienenstock (mathematical sociology) and Daoqin Tong (geographic information science), in collaboration with geographers and biologists from the University of Texas and Emory University during the five-year project that is part of the DOD Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative. Known as MURI, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory through its Army Research Office will provide ASU $6.25 million in funding to complete the project.

“This project will break new ground in the broad arena of research and biomarkers,” said Dr. Lisa Troyer, program manager in social and behavior sciences at Army Research Office. “The prevalence of pollen alongside the unique genetic signatures depending on type are a promising method for tracking the regions through which objects have traveled. The U.S. Army will benefit from technology that can rapidly and reliably determine these sources, with potential to identify the location of threats and adversaries.”

Grubesic and his team submitted the winning proposal to DOD making ASU one of only 24 universities selected to lead projects out of 295 applicants.

“The project underscores an important dimension of the Watts College commitment to public service,” said Jonathan Koppell, school dean. “We are committed to advancing national security, in this case, by pulling together multiple disciplines using advanced analytic frameworks under the leadership of Dr. Grubesic.”  

The project aims to close basic research gaps in forensic palynology to help U.S. government investigators identify where and when criminals and their weapons are moving, according to the project proposal titled “Networked Palynology Models of Pollen and Human Systems (NYMPHS).”

Pollen’s constant presence in the environment makes it a useful biomarker.  Pollen is durable and has predictable distributions across terrains. Investigators have used palynology, the study of pollen, in the past to link movements of bodies in mass graves in Bosnia.  Researchers are confident traces of pollen can help determine the origin of items such as computers, undetonated explosives, and papers.  Pollen grains can also provide important markers of objects moved between locations.

The project aims to develop a NYMPHS geocomputational toolbox; extend the use of DNA metabarcoding for identifying pollen samples; develop a rapid-deployment sampling framework for capturing airborne pollen; develop validation methods for determining accuracy, precision and uncertainty of species distribution models; and enhance use of social network methods and mathematical optimization to generate accurate geographic localization for objects that have moved among locations.

MURI is a highly competitive DOD program that has “made immense contributions to both defense and society at large.”  For fiscal year 2019, the Army Research Office, the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research conducted a merit-based review of nearly 300 proposals.  Twenty-four universities captured the $169 million in total awards to pursue research across multiple scientific disciplines.  Along with ASU, some of the award-winning institutions include MIT, Boston University, University of Chicago, Penn State and the California Institute of Technology.