MSU lab develops early-warning for biological invaders

Published 25 January 2008

Montana State University lab creates a nationwide team of plant pest experts who work together to identify pests, teach each other from their personal fields of expertise, and track the development of threats to agriculture or, potentially, human health

Montanans may not think a lot about homeland security, but one Montana State University unit which serves both agricultural producers and home gardeners also makes an important contribution to keeping the United States safe from biological invaders. The Schutter Diagnostic Lab on the Bozeman campus recently received a five-year grant for roughly $40,000 per year from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to build on work the lab has been doing on an early warning system of biological invaders, whether these invaders arrived in the United States accidentally or because of someone’s intention. “What has been put in place is the ability to detect early, to diagnose correctly and then to communicate information to those with the authority to respond,” says Jim Stack, the current director of the Great Plains Plant Disease Diagnostic Network and, until recently, director of the National Plant Disease Diagnostic Network.

Mary Burrows, a plant pathologist and supervisor of the Schutter Diagnostic Lab, says a specific pest identification protocol developed by the national network is used frequently. It allows the lab both to identify more traditional agricultural pests and keep the system ready for emergencies. “We are sent mystery samples,” says Burrows. The team identifies whether the samples are true invading pests or harmless look-alikes. Part of the national funding has purchased a Web-enabled microscope, which allows the diagnostic team at MSU to confer with USDA specialists in Beltsville, Maryland, or anywhere in the world, while they all look at the same microscopic image. The MSU diagnostic team also includes Nina Zidack, a plant pathologist, Will Lanier, an insect and information technology specialist, and Cathy Seibert, a weed identification specialist. Barry Jacobsen and Bill Grey, plant pathologists with row crop, mycotoxin and seed certification expertise, also contribute to diagnoses. The MSU lab leads the regional system’s training and education program, with Lanier and Zidack serving on the network’s National Committee on Teaching and Education. In 2006 the lab facilitated a mycotoxin education program by Jacobsen, who is one of the national experts on the topic. Due to demand for the program, MSU then cohosted a nationwide mycotoxin workshop with Purdue. Sixty participants from fifteen states were linked together for an interactive workshop using an MSU Extension Web server.

The network has built a nation-wide team of plant pest experts who work together to identify pests, teach each other from their personal fields of expertise, and track