Pests without borders: Building and investing in a network to assure plant health

Ray Hammerschmidt, professor & faculty coordinator of MSU Plant and Pest Diagnostics, works to build a national network to detect, diagnose and respond to plant health emergencies.

Ray Hammerschmidt.

There are no territorial borders when it comes to insects and pathogens. To help keep new pests at bay, MSU works as part of the National Plant Diagnostic Network, a USDA NIFA supported consortium of plant diagnostic labs across all 50 states and several U.S. territories. It is divided into five regions with MSU as the center for the North Central Region.

Ray Hammerschmidt, a plant pathology professor and faculty coordinator of MSU Plant and Pest Diagnostics, is director of the North Central Plant Diagnostic Network. 

“Our role is to enhance the ability to detect, diagnose and then report information to the appropriate agencies, the industries we serve and our colleagues around the country so we have a good basis for understanding the problems – and that will help to identify solutions,” he said.

While Detroit is a major port of entry for people and goods, it also an open door to plant-killing pests. Plant health emergencies happen when things get out of control to the point where we can’t do anything about it. Because of this, early detection and diagnosis is critically important.

“We’ve had enough examples of that over the years where a plant pest or pathogen has come in accidentally and by the time you figured out what it is, it’s too late to stop it before it becomes established. Emerald ash borer is a good example.” he said. “We also battle spotted wing drosophila, and more recently, tar spot on corn. Things that no one anticipated and now we have to try to keep up.”

The goal of the MSU Plant and Pest Diagnostic lab and its collaboration with the regional and national networks is to stay ahead of plant health emergencies before they become a problem.

“Enhanced scouting and good diagnostics will go a long way to help us better prepare for the future,” Hammerschmidt said.

Climate change will also be a major factor influencing the future of plant health. For example, diseases that thrived in the south that might be able to work their way north as the climate changes. Pathogens that were inhibited during previous Michigan winters might grow out of control with milder winters and rainier springs.

“We’ve had some diseases that have been around for years that just keep coming back, and then some new or re-emerging ones that are potentially becoming worse because of change in climate,” he said.

Hammerschmidt and his colleagues are concerned about their ability to prepare and manage potential threats because of aging lab infrastructure and equipment.

“Much of the technology is now 15-18 years old,” he said. “Although we have worked to maintain cutting edge diagnostics through the adoption of new diagnostic tools and equipment, we’re still not nearly as prepared as we should be in Michigan, as well as the rest of the country.”

And there are a series of potential plant health emergencies on the horizon.

“There’s Ralstonia solanaceaum, a bacterial pathogen potatoes, tomatoes and geraniums, and a list of plant pests and pathogens on the USDA watch list that have not even entered the country yet.”

A ring of bacteria oozing out of the cut surface on the stem of an infected geranium cutting. Photo by MSU Plant & Pest Diagnostics.

Hammerschmidt hopes that the United Nations’ Year of Plant Health will bring plants to the forefront of public consciousness and renewed investment.

“Education, awareness and preparedness are key so that when something new or novel comes in, the people who are out scouting -- whether they’re in the private sector, MSU Extension educators, or the public -- know to send it in for diagnosis,” he said. “You can’t anticipate everything, but you can think and plan proactively so that when a plant health emergency happens, it’s easier to get the resources together.”

In the future, he said plant health will continue to be affected by climate change and global trade, and it’s imperative to have the facilities, staff and tools to be able to successfully monitor, detect and respond to new threats to plant health.

“When we invest in labs, people and research around new pests and pathogens, we invest in the health of our food, forests and landscapes,” he said.


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