OSU plant clinic will help combat bioterrorism

September 2, 2003

CORVALLIS - The plant disease detectives at Oregon State University will soon be sleuthing for homeland security. OSU's Plant Clinic has been designated as part of a new nationwide network to safeguard America's food supply.

The clinic will provide rapid identification of specific plant pathogens, insects and weeds that may pose significant threats to western agriculture.

"Right now, in the United States, our food supply is plentiful, inexpensive and safe," said Melodie Putnam, chief diagnostician at OSU's Plant Clinic. "But there is a lot to do to keep it that way."

Last year, as part of the response to events of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture focused efforts on keeping America's agricultural production safe from bioterrorist attack. The result has been to connect diagnostic labs across the nation into a network for surveillance and rapid detection of pests and diseases that may be intentionally introduced into food crops.

OSU's Plant Clinic is one of three resource laboratories designated for the western region. Western agriculture provides the United States with much of its food, including large-scale commodity crops such as wheat and potatoes and hundreds of specialty crops from pineapples to hazelnuts. It is also a region with large population centers and big international ports where food is shipped around the world.

"If we had to create this level of expertise from scratch, we couldn't afford the time or the cost," said Putnam. "This new effort to combat bioterrorism is based on knowledge and experience that has been building in this lab for the last 50 years."

Since 1954, OSU's Plant Clinic has offered diagnostic services to growers and gardeners. Over the years, people have sent in tens of thousands of samples in the form of shriveled vegetables, black-mottled twigs or entire trees. The lab's detectives have diagnosed problems, prescribed remedies and recorded trends in plant pest and disease outbreaks.

"In the 10 years that I've been at the lab, I've examined about 15,000 samples and identified over 350 taxa of plant disease pathogens," said Putnam.

Normally, when she receives a sample of an infected plant, Putnam says she is looking for anything and everything. Traditional methods of plant disease detective work have given her a broad understanding of the pathogens that sometimes occur in the fields and orchards of Oregon.

Now with new tools in her lab, Putnam will also look for a few very specific pathogens, those that do not occur naturally and can cause devastating diseases to food crops. These may be foreign diseases for which the main food crops have no immunity or particularly virulent strains that can spread rapidly through the food supply.

For this detective work, Putnam will help develop molecular tests to rapidly identify some of the most potentially destructive plant pathogens. She will also work with growers to help them be alert to particular symptoms they might see in the field or orchard.

"The new aspect of our work is the surveillance of deliberately introduced epidemics and a reporting system that is integrated nationally for rapid response," said Putnam.

Author: Peg Herring
Source: Melodie Putnam