Scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada s Research Station in Morden, Man. are putting a rogue strain of stem rust under the microscope.
But forget the Hollywood thriller implications. Multiple layers of security ensure that the destructive pest Ug99 will stay contained, says Tom Fetch, the plant pathologist who heads up the Morden research program.
Besides an extensive array of stringent biosecurity protocols, Canada s inhospitable climate will serve as the ultimate backstop.
We are only doing our work in the winter, said Fetch, adding that the permit allowing research on Ug99 at the facility runs from Oct. 1 to May 1.
Even then, he still keeps the weather outside in mind before cracking open a vial of spores.
I wait until I am confident that there is no green host tissue outside, said Fetch.
First in Canada
The Morden lab, established in 1989 to study flax rust, is the first in Canada to be certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as a Plant Pest Containment Level 3 (PPC3) facility the highest security rating for plant pathogens.
To achieve the higher level, some $250,000 was required on upgrades to the air handling and waste water treatment, as well as the installation of showers and general cleaning and repairs.
Because they deal with plant pathogens only, the researchers will wear hospital scrubs and follow a shower-in, shower-out protocol, not the space suits seen in Level 4 labs studying zoonotic diseases.
By the latest estimates, 78 per cent of Canada s spring wheat varieties are susceptible to Ug99. Worldwide, the stem rust pathogen has the potential to knock out 80 to 90 per cent of the wheat grown.
However, unlike farmers in Uganda, where the highly virulent strain was first discovered, Canadian farmers would be able to limit the damage done by spraying their crops with fungicides, he said.
Fungicides can be used to control it, but we emphasize resistance because that s the most efficient and environmental way to do it.
Farmers in Canada have been spared large-scale rust outbreaks for decades. The last big stem rust infestation in spring wheat occurred in 1955. A minor epidemic happened in 1986 in winter wheat which is typically more vulnerable.
Spores are airborne
Leaf and stripe rust have also caused problems for crops. Spores for all types of rust are airborne, and are typically brought north from the southern United States after overwintering there in mid-to late June.
AAFC scientists are accelerating their efforts to characterize new sources of resistance and develop new rust-resistant varieties. But this work is confined to growing chambers in the off-season, said Fetch.
During the growing season, the spores are kept in a locked freezer at -80 C.
It can t go anywhere, he said. The Ug99 spore samples are transported to the lab by tracked courier shipments in sealed plastic vials that are enclosed in zip-lock bags, which in turn are enclosed in courier envelopes. Also, no samples are sent to the lab until October, well after the growing season ends.
Even if an enterprising bioterrorist intercepted a shipment, odds are they wouldn t be able to infect Canada s wheat crop, even if they dumped a package of spores on a field of wheat in June.
That s because the spores aren t terribly hardy. Even under ideal conditions in the lab, only half of the spores can be propagated.
Ug99 spores can survive under countertop conditions for 30 to 60 days, depending on heat and humidity.
One study found that at near-freezing temperatures, the spores don t last very long at all. It s a matter of hours and then they re dead, said Fetch. According to the latest international surveys, Ug99 is largely confined to continental Africa. However, it has broken out into Iran, and may spread next to wheat-growing areas in Pakistan and India.
Support of the project came from AAFC s Animal and Plant Health Research Initiative under the Growing Forward policy agreement. The renovation was completed in March 2011 and certified this fall.
Morden is one of eight AAFC laboratories which received funding from the Modernizing Federal Laboratories Initiative under Canada s Economic Action Plan. A total of $25.9 million was committed to AAFC for these upgrades.
Onestudyfound thatatnear-freezing temperatures,thespores don tlastverylongatall. It samatterofhoursand thenthey redead.