Exotic insect quarantine lab new weapon against pests
|Prof. George Khachatourians|
By Michael Robin
In a suite of labs on the recently completed sixth floor of the Agriculture Building, Dr. George Khachatourians and his team are harnessing applied microbiology to combat crop pests both at home and abroad.
Khachatourians explains the first two sections of the lab contain all the tools available in any high-calibre molecular genetics and microbiology lab. Researchers can study agricultural and industrial aspects of bacteria, fungi, plants and insects on the macro level, or go micro to examine the function of molecules.
State-of-the-art analytical and bioassay laboratories are equipped with high-throughput fluorescent flow cytometry analysis; electronic cell counter and sizer; state-of-the-art radioisotope and phosphorescence counter; digital Nomarski and fluorescent analytical microscopes; polymerase chain reaction (PCR) thermal cyclers; and fluoresce-, chemiluminescence- and absorbance- multi-detection microplate reader.
This equipment can process hundreds of samples of genetic material in seconds. Its s a powerful tool. For instance, a scientist looking into a variety of stress reactions on microorganisms in their normal or associative habitats with plants and insects could look at 15 different variables in four different environments simultaneously.
But it is the exotic insect quarantine lab that makes the facility unusual.
"In terms of what we do for insect biocontrol, you will not find any other Canadian agricultural teaching institution that has what we have." Khachatourians says.
The quarantine facility makes it possible for researchers to work on problems from all over the world, be it African locusts, Columbian coffee bean borers, or whiteflies, an important insect pest worldwide, including in Canada, that attacks fruits and vegetable crops and ornamentals. Even if these exotic pests may not be able to survive Canadian winters, government regulations demand that these insects be contained in a secure facility.
Researchers working in the quarantine lab "shower in and shower out". In fact, under normal circumstances, the shower and a sample portal are the only two access points into the lab. The whole lab can be sterilized if necessary.
The lab consists of four phytotrons to produce a range of environmental simulations particular to insects and plants at their geographical temperature, wind, humidity and lighting conditions. Two are designed to produce total daylight simulation.
One of the first projects in the lab will be extending the work of Columbian PhD candidate Edison Valencia, who is looking at Beauveria bassiana, or Bb, a fungus that is used as a pesticide. With the quarantine lab, Valencia and other collaborators will be able to work directly with the coffee bean borers, a major pest to the $5-billion annual Columbian coffee crop.
Khachatourians explains Valencias work has matured this research into the product stage, resulting in better, cheaper and more environmentally friendly pest control in Colombia. Without harsh chemical sprays, other insects have returned to the coffee plantations, along with the songbirds that had been absent.
Another project is looking at whiteflies, an extremely adaptable pest that quickly becomes tolerant to chemical pesticides. One student is looking into Bb as a control for whiteflies, and with the quarantine lab, can now bring in particular varieties of this insect to test their work.
For Khachatourians, now 60 years old, the labs represent an example of what senior U of S faculty can do to "pass the torch" to the next generation. By trading on their established reputations and experience to build state-of-the-art infrastructure, they can build a foundation for future faculty recruitment.
"What senior faculty can do is to use their reputation and funds to invest in and reinvent their tenured position before they leave," he says.
The equipping of the quarantine lab and associated facilities is being accomplished with $708,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and College of Agriculture Building Trust funds. It will be up-and-running by September, and Khachatourians has continued funding from several sources, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), through 2005.
"Were investing in new capacities, building not for our immediate needs, but for the next person wholl be younger, brighter, and will come to U of S because therell be the need for education in applied microbiology and microbial biotechnology and the state-of-the-art, 21st-century infrastructure that goes with it," Khachatourians says.
"My sense is its the best way I can give back for all of the good years Ive had at the university."
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