October 10, 2007

C.U. Greenhouses Quarantined

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On Sept. 14, the panicle rice mite, a small pest native to Asia, was detected in several greenhouses part of the Guterman Greenhouse Complex at Cornell.
The greenhouses have since been quarantined by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a subset of the United States Department of Agriculture. Two units within the Guterman Complex are fully quarantined, with access given only to specific authorized personnel. All other units have limited restrictions. Any person entering the greenhouse must don protective clothing, which is then sterilized after they exit to ensure that no mites escape the complex, according to Andrew Leed, CALS greenhouse manager.
Additionally, no plant material may be taken from any other research facilities on campus containing any rice.
The Guterman Greenhouse Complex houses a rice research facility run by the College of Agriculture and Life Science. The microscopic panicle rice mite was found in the rice growing in the greenhouses. It is known to cause enormous damage to rice crop.
While the mite has done significant damage in Asia, it has most potently affected Central America, where it caused a loss of 30 to 90 percent of rice crop in affected areas. It poses less of a threat in Ithaca, because there is not a significant rice industry in New York State.
The mite had only been found a few times in greenhouses in the U.S. It is hard to detect because it is smaller than a pinhead, but is usually detected by its effect on rice crop.
“The only reason that this was discovered at Cornell is because one of our rice researchers was proactive and searched for the mite,” said Leed. “The [Cornell] entomology lab identified the sample, and then we contacted the USDA.”
That researcher was Prof. Susan McCouch PhD ’90, plant breeding and genetics.
“My greenhouses are affected, but I haven’t lost anything yet,” said McCouch. “Everywhere they’ve looked where there is rice in a greenhouse on campus they have found the mite. This is not a new pest, but it is a quarantine situation because the government doesn’t know enough about it.”
“Any material that comes out must be autoclaved immediately, or samples must be frozen or heated to a point where the mite would die,” said Leed.
In an email to faculty and staff, Prof. Mike Hoffman, entomology, associate dean of CALS said that USDA “inspectors also collected mite samples from all remaining plant growth facilities containing rice. If additional infestations are found these other units may also come under the quarantine as well.”
“This is a nice example of how the government can spring into action in case something is a potentially harmful pest,” said McCouch. “In this case we are hoping that [the quarantine] proves to be something that they sprung into action unnecessarily.”
Additional inspections are to be completed in upcoming weeks by the State Plant Health Director and the USDA, and other parties. These inspections will likely determine the future of the plants and other research material in the greenhouse complexes.
“At this point they’re treating this as an exotic introduction that must be eradicated,” said Leed. “Some research is progressing, so it is a relatively minor expense but certainly an inconvenience. There are no immediate losses at this point but we’re waiting to see what happens. We’re in a holding mode, hoping for a favorable outcome.”