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USDA opens biological control lab

Could a naturally occurring fungus provide the “final solution” for the South's long-running battle with kudzu?

Could a natural predator like the phorid fly wipe out stinging populations of the red imported fire ant?

What if a disease could eliminate the Formosan subterranean termite from its habitat along the Gulf Coast areas of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi?

USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists are hopeful they can find answers to these and other burning pest management questions at the new USDA/ARS National Biological Control Laboratory in Stoneville, Miss.

The 53,000-square-foot, $16.3-million facility was officially dedicated at a ceremony where Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.; Joseph Jen, undersecretary of agriculture for research education and economics; ARS Administrator Edward Knipling; and Mississippi State University President Charles Lee spoke March 31.

Opened in late 2004, the NBCL will house 15 USDA/ARS scientists and 35 support personnel from four research units currently based at the Jamie Whitten Delta States Research Center, next door to the NBCL, at Stoneville.

The NBCL will provide an “interdisciplinary team of scientists with facilities for fundamental and applied research towards developing practical methods of mass propagation, storage and delivery of beneficial organisms, as well as targeted release strategies for integrated pest management,” according to ARS officials.

“Simply put, biological control is nothing more than the active encouragement and use of beneficial organisms to control pests,” said Ed King, area director for the Mid-South states for ARS, and emcee for the dedication. “Native pests and pests of foreign origin such as kudzu, red imported fire ants and Formosan subterranean termites all can be controlled with beneficial organisms.”

King said the NBCL is the first facility in the world to have the combination of scientific specializations for fully integrated research in biocontrol technology. Only organisms that have been approved by federal and state officials for release in the United States will be propagated and researched in the NBCL.

“There is no other building like it in the world,” said King. “It is a magnificent facility; it is a very complex facility in terms of the mechanics of operating it.”

Planning for the NBCL, which will be the second national ARS laboratory located at Stoneville — the first is the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Laboratory — began in 1997.

Cochran, then chairman of the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, and Thompson, who represents Mississippi's Second Congressional District, were instrumental in securing funding for the facility.

“This facility would not be here if not for the support of Sen. Cochran and Rep. Thompson,” said King. “Our scientists and the agricultural community owe them a debt of gratitude for making it possible.”

“In the Book of Proverbs, it says that where the people don't have vision, they perish,” said Thompson. “The people who conceived the idea for this building had to have significant vision, but what counts in this case is the money.”

“This is certainly going to help us address important problems in agriculture,” said the ARS' Knipling, who was a research scientist at Stoneville early in his career. “This facility will allow us to take it to the next level to sustain our capacity to produce quality food and protect the environment.

“The work here initially will focus on the Delta where you unfortunately are overendowed with a lot of pests that need control. But the technology will be extended to the national level and have applications in keeping with the concept of a national laboratory.”

Cochran thanked the researchers and support personnel who work for USDA and Mississippi State University at the Stoneville complex for building “the great reputation we have here in Mississippi for high-quality research that solves problems that face American agriculture and the American people.

“It is a great national asset and we pledge our best efforts in continuing to earn the great reputation that has been established here over the years.”

Cochran said the global economy demands the highest levels of efficiency and competence on the part of U.S. producers.

“The research that's done here at Stoneville helps to insure that is possible. But it's harder and harder to compete with other countries that don't have the same environmental constraints that we do and who may have a lot cheaper labor available than we have here in our country.”

The senator said he could recall being told when he first joined the Agriculture Committee that farmers had increased per acre soybean yields about as high as possible.

“In about 20 years, we have tripled the yield per acre on Mississippi farms because of research,” he noted. “We've dealt with pests and other threats to the well-being of those crops because of what's been done here at Stoneville. I look forward to even more success stories from this new facility.”

The NBCL facility, which is located west of the Jamie Whitten Southern States Research Center, includes separate wings for work on macroorganisms and microorganisms. The wings are designed to prevent accidental escape of the microorganisms and contamination of macroorganisms while allowing researchers to communicate freely.

“The Insect Wing is compartmentalized and progresses from office area to insect research laboratories to multi-species rearing of insects to the pilot plant area, which is dedicated to private sector development,” said King.

The wing includes eight insect rearing rooms with the capacity to closely monitor and control temperature, relatively humidity and lighting. It has an extensive food preparation area, which includes the capability of customizing many diets for insects.

“The Microbial Wing is compartmented and progresses from offices to microbial research to microbial mass culture to grow-out rooms to harvest areas to a second pilot plant area,” said King.

The wing consists of six individual laboratory rooms that minimize the potential of cross-contamination of product, a central location for joint use equipment and a separate room to contain sterilization equipment.

Mississippi State University's Charles Lee spoke about the long history of cooperation between researchers with ARS and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station at the Stoneville research station, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004.

“Anytime you have the money to build a national laboratory on our property,” said Lee, “you certainly have our permission.”


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