New system helps fight ag bioterrorism


MANHATTAN, Kansas – The key to minimizing impact is early detection and accurate diagnosis. The earlier the detection and diagnosis, the earlier the response; the earlier the response the lower the impact.

Basic philosophy. That’s the basic philosophy whether dealing with a human disease like cancer or one in plants like karnal bunt of wheat. Or an occurrence of bioterrorism.

It is that preparedness for a possible agricultural bioterrorism attack and a detection system put into place by the USDA and Homeland Security that will allow for the rapid detection and diagnosis of a possible bio agent – introduced either into a plant or an animal production system.

That is the essence of a paper a Kansas State University professor presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

Guest speaker. James Stack, a K-State associate professor of plant pathology, presented it at a symposium on countering the potential for impact of biothreats to crops and livestock.

Stack addressed the implementation of the National Plant and Diagnostic Network established from an approximately $4.5 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Five regions. Under the network, the United States is divided into five regions – each region delineated based on ecological considerations, plant criteria with respect to agriculture and natural plant systems.

Within each region is a diagnostic center that serves as the hub for that region and is tied into a laboratory in each state assigned to that region.

“In most literature it is referred to as the state triage lab,” Stack said. “That’s just a clearing house for samples that are submitted with problems.”

How it works. Each of these “clearing houses” is linked to one of the five regional labs, which in turn are connected to USDA expert labs in Maryland and North Carolina.

Data collected from these labs is monitored for pests and diseases to detect an early outbreak of disease and deposited into a central database at Purdue University.

According to Stack, the network’s infrastructure includes a Web-enabled microscope that allows local diagnosticians to get expert help from anywhere in the world.

If help is needed in making a diagnosis, an expert anywhere in the world can be contacted, sent a secure Web address, enabling the scientist to see through their computer screen exactly what the diagnostician is seeing through their microscope.

“It’s a very sophisticated system,” Stack said. “It allows you to get expert help if you’re unsure of something. The expert lab can send back to you what the real specimen would look like and so you can do a side-by-side comparison and make your diagnosis.”

Good example. While the system is designed to detect bioterroristic events, Stack said the recent bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, outbreak is a great example of how the network can work and respond rapidly to natural outbreaks that occur.

“What the BSE outbreak does is further demonstrate that the final result will be for the betterment of the way we do business,” Stack said. “No one suspects that the outbreak in Washington state was a bioterrorism event. It’s natural; those are going to occur.

“We move more agricultural products over greater distances in shorter periods of time than at any point in history. With those products you can’t help but move pathogens and pests.

“There’s not going to be a perfect system that completely eliminates risks. That’s not possible. So we have to be prepared.”

Stack said the system will also be able to detect natural out breaks in plants such as karnal bunt of wheat or Southern wilt of solanaceous plants caused by the bacterium Ralstonia solanacearum race 3 biovar 2.

Looking ahead. Stack said in the near future, the diagnostic network will be looking at another pathogen, soybean rust, which is already causing problems in Brazil and will be only a matter of time before it gets to the United States.

“The key will be early detection so that we can get in there and implement some management practices to minimize the impact,” Stack said. “We want to get people comfortable with the fact that these are important actions to take.

“Not just in preparedness for bioterrorism but also for the natural course of agriculture, which results in introductions. We need to minimize that.

“We already spend almost a $100 billion a year in educational and containment programs for introduced pests. This is one mechanism for helping to manage that problem.”


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