$6 million St. Paul facility awaits go-ahead to study exotic plants

The new Plant Pathology Research Facility is for plant disease research.

Alex Robinson

Like a grade school kid waiting for his Red Ryder BB-gun, the plant pathology department is counting down the days until Christmas.

The gift the department is waiting for is the approval of its new Plant Pathology Research Facility from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The $6 million facility opened Nov. 7, and if approved, it will be used for research on plant diseases. Plant pathology professor Dean Malvick said researchers hope the facility will be approved in early January.

The facility is under such tight inspection because it will be testing diseases that have never been introduced to the area.

The facility must meet criteria for a bio-safety level-three quarantine.

Level three is the highest level of security for plant pathogens, but there are some level four security facilities used for human diseases, Beverly Durgan, director of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, said.

Currently, there are only three bio-safety-three facilities in the country that are authorized to do research on exotic plant pathogens.

Malvick said if foreign diseases escaped the quarantine facility there is really no telling what the consequences would be.

“In some cases it could just be a minor danger, but in some cases we don’t know, so we don’t want to take the chance,” he said. “We don’t know what the risk could be.”

The facility will take careful precautions to make sure that diseases do not escape, Malvick said.

“Anything that’s worked on inside of it will stay inside of it,” Malvick said.

To ensure that diseases don’t escape, all of the water exiting the facility will be heat sterilized and air won’t be exchanged between the inside research area and outside. Also, people will have to shower before leaving the quarantine, Malvick said.

All projects will have their own safety protocol and will be approved by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the USDA.

Durgan said she hasn’t heard of any of the other bio-safety-three research facilities having problems with diseases escaping.

While she is confident the facility will be approved by the USDA, Durgan said the security comes with a price.

“One of the reasons we only see three other facilities is because they are very difficult to build, and they are very expensive to maintain,” Durgan said. “But they are built in a way to make sure that we don’t see escapes from them.”

If the facility is approved, plant pathology professor Jennifer Juzwik said they will probably start doing research on sudden oak death.

The disease has not yet been found in Minnesota, but is causing damage in California and Europe.

Juzwik said she and fellow researchers will test how susceptible Minnesota red oaks are to the disease.

The research could benefit not only the state, but the nation. It would be impossible to do this type of research without the facility, Juzwik said.

Malvick said researchers are excited to get started.

“There’s been a lot of anticipation,” Malvick said. “A lot of people are definitely looking forward to the time when we can actually start doing some of the things we’ve been planning to for years.”