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New Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic better serves clients

AMES — As a less than desirable growing season continues, if you happen to come upon an insect or diseased plant and are having troubles making a diagnosis, look no further than to the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic on the Iowa State University Campus in Ames for help.

Ed Zaworski, plant pathologist at the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic, said they moved to their new, larger state of the art clinic located in the university’s new Advanced Teaching and Research Building in May 2018 from their previous location in Bessey Hall.

“For us, and our lab use, this new location is much better,” he said. “It has greater separation for different tasks we perform in the lab. Our old clinic was one room. The whole lab, office space — everything, was one room. It was really challenging to do certain things. Especially in regards with DNA and stuff that needed to be really clean.”

Zaworski, said he, along with the others at the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic, were an integral part of designing the new facility.

“We got a lot of freedom designing this lab,” he said. “We got to work with the folks that were building this building quite a bit and we told them what we wanted, with the idea, that maybe, they wouldn’t be able to do everything that we wanted, but we got most everything. It’s really nice.”

The new clinic has paved the way for the team to not necessarily offer any new testing, but allows for the greater capability of performing DNA based molecular tests.

“We are expanding on the tests that we offer because we have the capabilities,” he said. “Basically, the number of pathogens that we are trying to ID via DNA has expanded and the only reason we didn’t do that in the old lab is because you have to envision the scenario — we are trying to extract DNA from a plant where, right next to it on the bench, there is soil. It wasn’t ideal. That would be the main difference, we have, in general, more space here.”

In those areas where DNA is being tested, the new clinic allows for it to be done separately.

“Nothing enters this room but DNA,” he said. “Now that we have that in place.”

Along with the new space for that sort of testing, Zaworski, said they also received some new equipment.

“Now that we actually have a separate room and nothing enters this room but DNA, now that we have that in place, we bought new equipment with regards to that,” he said.

The need for this type of testing, Zaworski, said, comes when you can’t determine what the disease is just from looking at the physical characteristics.

“Sometimes you have to delve even further to determine this is a pathovar of this fungus and it is more aggressive. We are seeing some stuff, as an example, Frog Eye Leaf Spot on soybeans. We have found that there is some resistance to QOI fungicides. That would be the type of thing we can’t determine looking at the pathogen, so you have to determine that looking at the gene of the DNA,” he said.

Clients

Zaworski, said he finds it interesting, of the samples that come into the clinic, there is a lower percentage of field crop or agricultural samples that come in.

“Last year we had about 1,400 samples and about 120 of them were from field crops,” he said. “What I always tell people is obviously, Iowa is a huge corn and soybean state and you would expect us to get a lot of samples, but growers have a lot of resources, so what ends up happening is, we very rarely have growers come directly to us. And they can. But, they have so many resources. They can go to their seed dealer, their chemical rep, their field agronomist and the Extension folks.”

Zaworski, said what will eventually make it to the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic for agricultural samples, seems to be cases that need absolute confirmation on something that appears to be very rare.

“It’s when there is a strange phenomenon they have never seen before. It doesn’t’ match up to anything in the books. That is what ends up coming to us for the most part, on the ag side,” he said.

How to send in a sample

Zaworski, said samples may be delivered right to the clinic, but that isn’t always a possibility.

“Most people aren’t going to have the luxury to drop off the physical sample here at the building – which they can. Anyone can show up here at the door and drop off a sample in person,” he said. “The other option is to mail it.”

How do you mail in a plant sample?

According to information provided by the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic, in many situations, it is important to submit the whole plant, especially if it is in the early stages of plant development.

Sending in the whole plant gives the technicians the opportunity to examine both the roots and the foliage of the plant.

When digging up a root ball, it is suggested you wrap the soil in something like newspaper or a plastic bag. This will keep the soil off of the plant foliage.

It is also recommended to gather lots of plant tissue and send in at least six to eight plants.

Zaworski, said there is more information on how to properly submit samples on their website including how-to videos and submission forms.

“We try to tell folks to mail things early in the week. Collect things fresh and mail them right away — use overnight shipping. All of that stuff is really important in regards to us having a good chance of identifying what is going on,” he said. “If we get something dry and crispy, the chances of us making a good diagnosis goes down tremendously.”

Zaworski said they don’t test for herbicide or other residues in plant tissue but will examine the samples to rule out if there is potential disease or insect pressure and they will examine the symptoms to determine if it appears to match symptoms associated with exposure to herbicides or other chemicals.

“We’re primarily the plant disease and insect people,” he said. “But, we do get a lot of samples that are inquiring about herbicide injury. For the most part, we like to determine whether or not a disease or insect is involved. When we get beyond that, we have lots of folks on campus we can consult with.”

On the non-agricultural side, Zaworski said they see it all.

“We get everything. It’s really fun,” he said. “We get stuff from commercial service providers, to Extension folks, to homeowners, to greenhouse managers, orchards…we get a lot of stuff. A vast majority we get is from homeowners. ‘What is wrong with my tree?’ ‘What is going on in my garden?’ That kind of stuff.”

Once a diagnosis is made, Zaworski said they will give management recommendations.

“We supply resources to these folks,” he said. “With homeowners, with problems with their trees, we tend to give them a lot more guidance with management because they tend to not be as well versed.”

Zaworski said they rarely have repeat clients besides commercial service providers may need assistance more often but said he encourages anyone with a plant disease or insect problem to reach out to them.

“I do think we are kind of a hidden gem,” he said. “I want to get the word out we are here and we are available.”