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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

New lab to allow study of useful insects

ABy Adri Mehra A new $6.3 million Insect Quarantine Facility that will allow researchers to study and develop insects for agricultural use opened Friday on the St. Paul campus.

The facility’s opening is part of the first phase of a $24 million plant growth facilities project. The project is a combined effort of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

The 30,000 square-foot building, located just across from Gortner Laboratory and the new Microbial and Plant Genomics Building, is the first of its kind in the Midwest, and the first insect quarantine lab on a land-grant university campus.

Insects that will eventually be sent out to eat specific crop-choking weeds and bugs will be tested, reared and analyzed for up to seven years in the state-of-the-art laboratory and containment facility.

Researchers hope this research will enable farmers to release the right insects to permanently inhabit their fields, saving them millions of dollars by increasing their yield without having to spray expensive and environmentally harmful pesticides.

“This new facility will push back frontiers of science, and help the economy,” said Chuck Muscoplat, Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station vice president and dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. “Pests are the single biggest threat to crops.”

Researchers say they will now be able to study and develop beneficial insects’ potential in the natural biological control of soybean aphids, buckthorn, garlic mustard and other insects and weeds dangerous to crop production. Special security and air filtration systems will ensure the insects do not accidentally venture out on their own.

The insects are identified, sorted, raised and kept under highly sterilized glass cages in growth and inoculation chambers. Elements of their life cycle such as light and temperature are simulated, and they are alternately starved and force-fed to determine what they eat and, most importantly, whether they could become just another pest.

When they are released, it will be in a carefully plotted grid system of target sites, where the insect “agents” will disperse and eat only the root crown of a noxious weed or other invasive species displacing native plants or degrading pastureland or wildlife habitat.

University researchers are searching for “pathogen” insects across China, Japan and Korea to counteract the soybean aphid, which has infested millions of acres in more than 20 states and is a native of Asia, according to Dave Ragsdale, quarantine officer for the facility and a University entomology professor.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said insects are currently at work damaging his recently planted soybean crop on his farm in southern Minnesota. If the insect infestation gets any worse, he said, the soybeans will need to be sprayed with an insecticide costing up to $11 per acre, adding more than $5,000 to the cost of growing his nearly 500 acres of soybeans this year.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists and University officials worked together to develop and open the facility.

“The biocontrols coming from this building will save producers millions of dollars in reduced crop damage while helping protect and preserve the environment,” said Christine Maziar, the University’s executive vice president and provost. Maziar, who has an engineering background, said after viewing the mechanical system in the basement she sees the new facility as “less a building than an instrument.”

In an agricultural state such as Minnesota, the facility could impact the economy. The state has annual exports of $2.6 billion in agricultural and horticultural plant crops and is an international leader in these industries. Hopefully, the new facility will attract top researchers and graduate students, or “human capital,” to the University, said Bev Durgan, associate dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences.

More than 115 full-time faculty members, 120 graduate students, 1,500 undergraduate students and 100 research staff use the University’s greenhouses and plant growth facilities for teaching and research, and demand for space and storage is high according to the department’s 2000 capital request.

Most of the original facilities were built between the 1920s and 1940s. In addition to being energy and space inefficient, most are out of compliance with state regulations controlling pesticide and fertilizer use.

The next phase of the project will demolish the deteriorated northwest greenhouses and renovate the remaining greenhouses to bring them into compliance with state law and up to contemporary research standards.

While the first phase of the plant growth facilities project will open research opportunities for scientists across several disciplines, the ongoing second phase of construction will provide classrooms to connect teaching with the research.

New liberal education requirements have increased undergraduate teaching and outreach education in the plant sciences, and students from the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences as well as the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Natural Resources will have many new opportunities for innovative hands-on learning in the modernized instructional facilities.

In the early 1990s, up to 18 plant growth projects were funded by the University, in contrast to only two last year, according to speaker Dharma Sreenivasam of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

A 1993 facility was planned, but it was not until after dozens of meetings and several major revisions that the legislature approved design funds for the facility during the 1998 session, and the capital request for both phases was funded by the 2000 session.

However, officials like Sreenivasam are concerned with maintaining the operational funds needed to run the facility, which could run tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Adri Mehra is a freelance writer for the Minnesota Daily.

The freelance editor welcomes comments at [email protected]

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