Identifying plant health threats and solutions at the epicenter of collaboration

Jan Byrne, plant pathology diagnostician with MSU Plant and Pest Diagnostic Services, identifies potential plant health issues for growers and home owners.

As part of its land-grant mission, MSU has a multidisciplinary team working to assure plant health for Michigan agriculture and the public through the MSU Plant and Pest Diagnostics Lab.

Jan Byrne is a plant pathology diagnostician at the lab and specializes in disease diagnosis, evaluation of abiotic factors that affect plant health and Phytophthora ramorum detection.

“Our primary mission is to serve both homeowners and commercial growers in Michigan,” Byrne said. “Annually, our lab receives approximately 6,000 samples per year, of these, 1,000 – 1,500 plant samples for plant health analysis. These samples are primarily from within Michigan and are submitted by both commercial growers and private citizens.”

Michigan’s growing seasons determine the type of samples sent to the lab for testing.

“In the late winter, there are a lot of greenhouse samples,” she said. “In planting season, we’ll start to see more vegetables, more fruits, so it’s an ever-changing supply of problems and samples that are coming in.” 

For example, every year, Byrne examines samples for late blight, a pathogen that affects potatoes and tomatoes for commercial and home gardeners. 

“If and when we do detect it, then we communicate with growers and gardeners that it’s out there and they need to be aware of it,” she said. “Downy mildew on cucurbits is another one that is important to Michigan’s growers and we keep an eye out for in the summer.”

The lab is the epicenter of collaboration.

“In the diagnostic lab, we work really well together as a team, both within the lab with my colleagues, but also with the faculty who have MSU Extension roles,” Byrne said.

If Byrne finds a new issue that stumps her, she’s able to work with other campus faculty to investigate.

“Last year, we had a lot of blueberry samples coming in and we were really struggling to figure out what was going on with them,” Byrne said. “So, we worked really closely with Tim Miles who’s our blueberry pathologist and we talked to Rufus Isaacs who’s the blueberry entomologist to try to get some other perspectives and use a larger network to work on problems.”

Once a problem is identified, Byrne works with a network to get the word out to the people who need it most.

“When there are situations where we find something, then the MSU Extension faculty can work on developing the tools to better manage a disease,” she said. “Then they can work with the Extension educators and with the growers to spread that information out.”

Although Byrne works primarily with identifying Michigan plant diseases, she’s also involved in regional and national identification.

“As we see things in Michigan, they don’t just stay in Michigan,” she said. “When there are parallels with our colleagues in other states, we start branching out and networking to address the issue. We’ve learned a lot through working with other people and that’s been a really interesting piece of my work.”

As part of a federal program, Byrne works with other states to tests samples for Phytophthora ramorum, also known as sudden oak death, an extremely destructive pathogen. She also tests plant material in Michigan, because once here, it has the potential to destroy our native oak forests.

“It’s pathogen that’s not in Michigan yet and we’d like to keep it that way,” Byrne said. “So, there’s a lot of survey work, a lot of testing that gets done to make sure that our plant material coming in is healthy and not bringing in that pathogen.”

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