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Monday, March 19, 2018

Biological technician Kim Mann reviews a print out of a plant gene sequence in the NPALR’s microbiology lab. The lab’s gene sequencer takes about 45 minutes to process a DNA sample, during which it can isolate approximately 450 DNA base pairs. 

A plot of sugar beets grows in the NPALR’s greenhouse, which is computer-controlled and fully automated. These sugar beets, though healthy now, will be intentionally infected with Cercospora leaf spot, a major fungal disease in sugar beets, as part of an experiment to find ways of preventing or controlling the disease.

Ag industry benefits from Sidney’s research center part 1 (slideshow)

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Part 1 of 3

Gene sequencers, biological containment facilities, men and women in spotless white lab coats peering into beakers of this and vials of that; this is high science, and it’s not happening in some ivory tower or in the latest zombie movie, but right up the road in Sidney, and the sole purpose behind it all is to make American agriculture better, faster and stronger.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northern Plains  Agricultural Research Laboratory is where it all happens, at least in Eastern Montana. A sprawling complex on the north end of Sidney, the NPARL employs 16 scientists and a bevy of technicians, research assistants and support personnel.

The NPARL is divided into two main units, the Agricultural Systems Research Unit and the Pest Management Research Unit, with the facility’s scientists divided equally between the two.

The Agricultural Systems unit researches ways to get better, more sustainable production out of both dryland and irrigated cropland. According to NPARL technical information specialist Beth Redlin, the research being done in this unit is extremely in-depth and high tech.

“The low-hanging fruit in terms of research has been done, now we’re into the very complex problems,” Redlin said.

For example, Redlin points to research being done on how microorganisms like bacteria and fungi impact soil quality and plant health and ways some of these microorganisms might be used to help farmers fight plant diseases or boost nutrients in the soil.

Under the Microscope

Lab technician Lyn Solberg-Rodier is one of the researchers working on this specific issue. 

In the biological research lab, Solberg-Rodier has about 380 samples of bacteria and fungi stored in test tubes that she is testing for their ability to produce chitin. Chitin is a glucose derivative found in many organisms, including the cell walls of fungi and the exoskeletons of crabs.

Holding up a petri dish containing a strain of bacteria, Solberg-Rodier, pointing to a pale, barely visible ring inside the dish, explains how she can tell the bacteria culture is reacting with chitin.

“That clear halo tells me they are using the chitin in the media,” she said.

To aid in the research, Solberg-Rodier has a couple high-tech tools at her disposal, including a gas chromatograph she uses to identify the microbial samples and a high-power microscope that has 20,000 times magnifying power and is so sensitive it sits in its own specially-constructed room that sits on a 3-foot thick concrete pad and has no structural connections to the rest of the building to protect it from vibrations caused by passing trucks on the highway outside.

The purpose of this research is to identify different chitin-producing microorganisms and ascertain how they behave in different conditions. Chitin-producing microbes can be valuable in agriculture because they break down, recycle and replenish nutrients in the soil.

“Soil residue requires chitin-producing bacteria to decompose,” Solberg-Rodier explained. “It also has to do with nitrogen recycling. When (chitin-producing microbes) die, the other bacteria can use them as a food source.”


NPARL researchers have also worked with ways to use chitin-producing microbes to control plant diseases. An example is research the laboratory has made that shows chitin-producing bacteria work, at least in controlled laboratory conditions, in inhibiting the growth of Cercospora leaf spot, a major fungal disease in sugar beets.

While the Agricultural Systems unit of the NPARL works with microorganisms, the Pest Management unit deals with considerably larger creatures.

Bugs of all shapes and sizes are the province of researchers in this unit. Three of the unit’s scientists are strictly devoted to studying ways to control grasshopper outbreaks alone.

Read Part 2 Saturday, March 29.


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