U facility to study plant pathogens

Vincent Staupe

The University will break ground later this month on a state-of-the-art plant pathogen research facility on the St. Paul campus.

In the $4.8 million building, researchers will study devastating plant diseases that might soon arrive in Minnesota, focusing on three threats: soybean rust, sudden oak death and stem rust, said John Byrnes, the University’s Agricultural Experiment Station’s marketing communications director.

“We’re building this facility to basically understand these diseases and how they work,” Byrnes said.

The facility, the first of its kind in the Midwest, is a result of a partnership between the University, the state Department of Agriculture and state agricultural leaders. Funded by the University and state agriculture department, it’s the final phase of new plant growth and quarantine facilities on the St. Paul campus.

The Asian soybean rust pathogen – potentially the most damaging pathogen threatening soybean producers today – was discovered in the southern United States in 2004, Byrnes said. It was carried northward by winds from South America, where it had already damaged soybean crops in several countries, he said.

Richard J. Zeyen, a University plant pathology professor, said once a pathogen such as soybean rust establishes itself in an area like the southern Mississippi River basin, it’s only a matter of time before southerly winds carry it to Minnesota.

“We have no natural barriers such as mountains that could prevent the spread of these kinds of pathogens,” Zeyen said.

The facility will employ many biosafety containment systems to prevent the escape of any pathogens being studied.

Zhishan Wu, a Minnesota Department of Agriculture quarantine officer, said the new facility will follow strict rules regarding safely testing and researching pathogens.

The facility will feature negative air pressure in containment areas, showers and lockers for staff members leaving the facility, air filters and plumbing systems as well as an “autoclave,” a steam decontamination device that allows materials to be transported to and from the facility, Wu said.

Zeyen said studying the pathogens in Minnesota allows researchers to identify how a pathogen reacts to the climate and other plants that already are established here.

“It’s important to be pre-emptive to the disease agent arriving,” Zeyen said, “You need to do your research in advance.”

Kristen Weeks-Duncanson, a southern Minnesota farmer, said the facility will be a great addition to the state.

“Soybean farmers are particularly pleased that the ground (will be) broken and we(will be) under way,” she said.