Lab detects pests, trains young scientists

As genomics research unravels some of life’s complexities, laboratories like the new molecular lab at WSU Puyallup applies that knowledge to real-world problems.
For molecular geneticist Katie Coats, that means working with the WSDA and WSU Puyallup plant pathologist Gary Chastagner to understand the genetics of the exotic plant pathogen Phytophthora ramorum, the cause of sudden oak death. This fungus-like pathogen has killed more than a million oak trees in California and has been found in a number of Puget Sound nurseries. If uncontrolled, this pathogen can spread through air and water to other trees and plants in nurseries and into surrounding landscapes. It has the potential to create substantial financial losses to horticultural and timber industries due to resulting quarantines and trade restrictions.

“The WSDA is providing plant samples that have tested positive,” Coats said. “Their tests,” she explained, “show that the pathogen is present. We take it one step further, using the molecular lab to genetically fingerprint the pathogen in an attempt to identify different strains of the pathogen. We can determine if they are persisting in nurseries or if new strains of the pathogen are being regularly introduced into nurseries. If we can track how the strains are spreading, we can more effectively eradicate them.”

The molecular lab is also helping Sumner High School sophomore students Becca Humphries and Alexandra Montano gain hands-on microbiology experience as they conduct real-life experiments. Both students consider themselves emerging microbiologists. They look at this experience as an opportunity to become more involved in science. They are working with Coats as part of an FFA program under the direction of their advisor, Greg Pile.

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