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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Lab technician Lyn Solberg-Rodier inspects a test tube containing chitin-producing bacteria. Research into the agricultural applications of chitin-producing microorganisms -- which could include soil enrichment and disease control -- is one the ongoing efforts at the USDA’s Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory.
Lab technician Dale Spracklin prepares a soil sample for use in research into particle size in soil aggregates and its possible affects on crops.

Ag industry benefits from Sidney’s research center part 2 (slideshow)

“I’m very proud of (the bio-containment lab), it’s very unique,” Deb Waters, facility manager



By Jason Stuart
Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Part 2 of 3

The crown jewel

The jewel in the crown of the Pest Management unit is its Level 2 bio-containment facility. Only four people amongst the NPARL’s staff are allowed into this inner sanctum, which has been painstakingly sealed off from the outside world.

Fort Knox is not sealed so tightly.

Entry into the lab is made through a “dark room” with sticky mats on the floor and walls and a high pressure gradient that sucks air into the lab so hard it will suck the doors shut in an instant. Those inner and outer doors also cannot be opened at the same time.

Inside, all shelves in the lab and other interior rooms are on rollers to minimize perforations in the walls. Mesh screens are everywhere. Air vents are carefully sealed. The building’s mechanical room is sealed off above the lab and separately accessible. A thick concrete roof with no openings sits on top.

Finally, nothing alive or dead, be it plant or animal, exits the lab except through its autoclave, a device that uses steam and pressure to sterilize organic matter and destroy living tissue. Like the “dark room,” only one door on the autoclave can be opened at a time.

“I’m very proud of (the bio-containment lab), it’s very unique,” said Deb Waters, who manages the facility.

All that high security is to keep something in. It’s not some dread pathogen that could destroy humankind. What NPARL is housing here is something far less insidious. 

Quite simply, it’s bugs.

“Basically, what we do is deal with exotic insects with the object of looking at biological control,” Waters said. “The containment facility is basically to keep things in so they don’t escape. They’re exotics, they’re not from this area.”

When Waters speaks of biological control, she means using insects to control invasive plant species, or as she put it, “using an organism to control an organism.”

Inside the containment facility insects from other parts of the country and around the world are reared from their larval stage to adulthood and studied. 

Within the United States, the NPARL is ground zero for this kind of research.

“We are the testing agency,” Waters said.

The NPARL does work in collaboration with other USDA research facilities, universities and foreign institutions on the research being done inside. That kind of collaboration is how they come by most of their insects under study.

A current example is studies being done on the whitetop weevil. The bugs were brought over as larvae in a stem of whitetop from the European Biological Control Center in Montpellier, France. The NPARL is studying whether the weevil is suitable to use as a control agent for whitetop, which is native to Eurasia but is an invasive weed in the United States.

“(The whitetop weevil) is a good biological agent over in Europe, and what we’re looking at is controlling whitetop over here,” Waters said.

The reason behind all the precaution taken with the weevils and all the other exotic insects brought to the lab is simple -- to make sure they don’t get loose before being thoroughly studied to ensure that they don’t have the potential to do more harm than they would good.

In the whitetop weevil example, Waters pointed out that there is a native species of weevil from the same genus which is a pest of canola and rape. NPARL researchers are doing experiments to make sure the beneficial European weevils aren’t capable of hybridizing with the native pests.

“Since the insects are so (genetically) close together, they don’t want a hybrid that could create a major problem,” Waters explained.


Read Part 3 Sunday, March 30.

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