Vigilance against the invisible: building molecular tools to identify pathogens

Monique Sakalids, assistant professor in the Forestry and Plant Soil and Microbial Sciences departments at MSU, builds molecular tools to help identify exotic and native pathogens that have the potential to cause plant health emergencies.

Monique Sakalids.

Monique Sakalidis, MSU professor and researcher in the departments of forestry and plant, soil and microbial sciences, works on and teaches about diseases that affect Michigan trees and forests. Her lab develops molecular tools to identify pathogens within a few hours and confirm if they are dead or alive, a process that could take weeks using traditional identification methods. To move the tools from research to application, she is working closely with the plant and pest diagnostic labs at MSU and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD).

Although she works with exotic invasive pathogens like oak wilt, Sakalidis is also concerned with native pathogens empowered by stressed forests and climate change.

“Increasing human influences and climate change stress  our forests so that pathogens that were part of the natural forest ecosystem where they nibble away at declining trees to help the decaying process, are now stronger and are nibbling away at a lot more healthier trees,” she said. 

With research, MSU Extension and teaching appointments, she works alongside the DNR, MDARD and the U.S. Forest Service because they are consistently surveying forests and sites where trees and seedlings are grown here in Michigan. When they identify a potential tree health issue, Sakalidis works with them to diagnose an issue and develop a research plan when an easy management solution isn’t available.

“We have been working to develop better detection tools and understand the biology and spread of diseases such as oak wilt, Caliciopsis canker, Phytophthora root rot, and spruce decline here in Michigan. These diseases impact trees and seedlings in Michigan, in the US and in some cases globally.”

What happens when Sakalidis is contacted about a new pathogen? 

“We initially want to know what is it, where is it and what can we do about it,” she said. “The what is it is our ability to detect it, sometimes with our eyes, sometimes with a molecular tool. The where is it is that survey work where we tap into a network of people doing that survey work. And the what can we do about it is the big question mark.” 

Sakalidis helps to come up with recommendations to answer the big question mark: What can we do about it

“In the case of oak wilt, my lab works with Deb McCullough who is a forest entomologist and Bert Cregg who’s a tree physiologist to come up with a recommendation,” she said. “We basically build the science together, each of us working in the areas of our expertise to make those recommendations.”

While recommendations are tailored to each pathogen, the first step is prevention.

“The best thing is vigilance – regularly scouting trees, growing practices designed to minimize plant stress and increase plant vigor, buying from clean nurseries, being aware of the environment around us and seeking answers when we’re not sure what’s going on,” she said.

Sakalidis said she finds her work with growers, agencies and other researchers very rewarding. 

“It’s wonderful to understand more about the pathogens I work with, but also to be able to find solutions and make a difference in people’s lives -- that’s the best thing,” she said. 


This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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