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Biocontainment unit helps researchers to tackle SOD

For more than three years Kathy Riley, a WSU research technologist, has been trekking between the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center and Corvallis, Ore. to conduct research on the deadly plant pathogen known as Sudden Oak Death. That’s because Oregon State University is home of the only pathogen isolation facility in the region federally approved for research on SOD.

But now there are two.

This week, nursery and forest products industry representatives and local elected officials joined College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences administrators to cut the ribbon on a new $250,0000 biocontainment unit for SOD research recently installed at the Puyallup Center.

With completion of a few final details, Riley soon will be able to take a short walk rather than a long trip to conduct her research.

The unit itself resembles a walk-in freezer.  Researchers can precisely control light, temperature and humidity within the unit.  Most importantly, nothing will leave the unit without being filtered and decontaminated to ensure no viable pathogens escape.

While WSU funded and installed the unit specifically to address the SOD threat, plant pathologist Gary Chastagner says it will be a valuable asset for future research. With increasing international trade, Chastagner told the gathering, there will be an increase in transmission of plant pathogens.

“This unit allows us to deal with Sudden Oak Death, but there will be other issues,” Chastagner said.  “Having this facility positions WSU to respond to those issues when they arise.”

SOD was identified in 2000 after killing thousands of trees in California and causing leaf blight on rhododendrons in Europe. The fungus-like pathogen has been found in 14 California counties and in one county in Oregon.  Since 2003, SOD infected plants have been found and destroyed in 33 Washington nurseries.  More than 100 host plants have been identified so far, including many important to Washington state such as rhododendron, viburnum, grand fir, Douglas fir, madrone and big leaf maple.

CAHNRS Dean Dan Bernardo told the group that his family still owns farmland in the heart of California’s SOD problem so he’s seen its impacts first hand.

“SOD has the potential to be economically devastating not only for industry, but to the quality of life in western Washington,” Bernardo said. 

Puyallup REC director Jon Newkirk credited WSU administration with recognizing the serious threat posed to the state’s natural resources industries by SOD and responding quickly.

“This was probably done in record time for establishing a facility like this,” Newkirk said. “It went from an idea to a completed facility in 18 months.  The university and the college recognized the need and found a way to get this built.”

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