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Disease lab helps keep plants healthy

When there is a sick plant in the state, Mississippi State University’s state-of-the-art Plant Pathology and Nematology Lab can determine the problem and its solution.

In 2006, the laboratory in Starkville, Miss., analyzed about 700 disease samples and tested about 1,700 samples for nematodes. The lab serves large-scale farmers, commercial growers and homeowners with plant problems, and it is the diagnostic lab for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture. It is part of the Southern Plant Diagnostic Network that monitors diseases that may pose a threat to agriculture.

“We test everything from baby’s breath to soybeans, from homeowners’ lawn samples to golf courses,” said Clarissa Balbalian, lab manager with the MSU Extension Service.

If a plant is diseased in Mississippi, the owners can bring in the local Extension agent to collect a sample for the lab or send a sample in on their own. The lab charges $6 to test plant disease samples and $11 to test for nematodes.

Balbalian said the lab has an arsenal of equipment to help with the diagnosis. Disease symptoms are examined, and reference books are used in some instances to identify the disease.

The lab uses microscopy and lab cultures to identify pathogens, or disease-causing organisms. More advanced tests include molecular techniques such as real-time PCR, a polymerase chain reaction that identifies specific segments of DNA, and ELISA, an antibody reaction to target specific pathogens.

Once the disease or nematode is identified, the lab contacts the owner with information on the problem and its solution. Turnaround on a diagnosis ranges from a few hours to several weeks, but averages less than a week.

“We try to give recommendations that include not just what chemical control to use, but also cultural practices to keep their plants healthy and keep this from recurring,” Balbalian said.

Alan Henn, Extension plant pathologist, works in conjunction with the lab to help commercial growers and farmers.

“If the grower would like more assistance with his disease problem, or the problem seems complicated or it is a commercial operation, I will do an on-site visit to try to help,” Henn said. “The real world is a complicated place, and we try to help them so they don’t lose their crops.”

A speedy response to disease is essential, especially in greenhouse and ornamental crops. Henn said the green industry, or businesses that include greenhouse production, ornamentals and turf, is the fastest growing agricultural segment, increasing at the rate of about 10 percent a year.

“It is important for the people of Mississippi to maintain that growth to provide the steady income in these industries,” Henn said. “Through the Plant Pathology and Nematology Lab, we work with these growers to help them have a profitable growing season or seasons each year.”

Balbalian encouraged everyone sending in a sample for analysis to provide as much information with that sample as possible. This includes information on the host plant, disease symptoms that are present, care given to the plant and previous experience with this problem.

“You can’t give me too much information,” Balbalian said. “If the plant is large enough, snip off a small twig that contains several leaves on it. It is helpful if you can sacrifice the whole plant, as sometimes the symptoms may occur in the leaves, but the problem is in the roots.”

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