Ag industry benefits from Sidney’s research center part 3 (slideshow)
By Jason Stuart
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
Part 3 of 3
A bug’s life
Behind the bio-containment facility sits the NPARL’s bio-climatic building. Inside are rows upon rows of climate-controlled experimentation chambers. In each chamber scientists are performing experiments on two of the Northern Plains’ most destructive native pests -- grasshoppers and Mormon crickets.
“The Mormon cricket and grasshopper work is really interesting,” Redlin said.
Finding ways to control outbreaks of the insects is the end goal of the NPARL’s research into these voracious plant eaters.
For instance, Redlin pointed out scientists are trying to understand why mormon crickets form such huge swarms and migrate en mass, eating everything in their path.
“One thing they are looking at is why do (Mormon crickets) band together and can we do anything to control it,” she said.
Studying Mormon crickets has also become easier because of research breakthroughs at the NPARL.
“Out of this lab, they’ve developed a protocol for how to raise Mormon crickets in the lab,” Redlin said. “In the past, you couldn’t do that. You could only get them from the field.”
Though the procedure for raising Mormon crickets in the lab is “still in progress,” according to Redlin, it will give researchers the chance to study the crickets year-round, as the old way of having to collect them in the field “impeded research abilities.”
Back in the NPARL main building, biological technician Kim Mann and research aid Jeannie Lassey are hard at work in the facility’s microbiology lab.
“It’s kind of the plant CSI lab in here,” Mann quipped.
Using a gene sequencer and other tools of the laboratory geneticist, Mann and Lassey separate out DNA and analyze the genetic codes of the plants and insects being studied at NPARL.
One thing they investigate at the genetic level is whether invasive noxious weeds have hybridized with native plant species.
“Our noxious weeds, most of them are from overseas, so what we do is break down the gene sequencing of the weeds here so we can compare them with those overseas,” Mann said. “Then we can compare the weed populations here with those overseas and see how alike or different they are.”
That work is important when it comes to controlling invasive weeds because, as Mann explained, what works for weed control on a European weed in Europe may not necessarily work over here if that weed has hybridized and its genetic makeup has been even slightly altered.
In concert with studying the DNA of invasive weed species, Mann and her colleagues study the DNA of the insects being researched in the bio-containment facility.
In the past, researchers just had to release some bugs into an area and hope for the best, but now, with the power of genetics, they can use DNA research to predict with much more accuracy how well a particular insect species will work in controlling invasive plants.
“The molecular controls give us a better chance to match the biological control agents and the weeds, and to better understand the genetics of the weeds we’re working with,” Mann said. “This is giving us better tools to predict success.”
Building a better farm
In the end, the goal of all the research being done at the NPARL is to benefit farmers, not just in Eastern Montana, but across America.
“There’s a lot of value in agricultural research,” Redlin said.
That research is incredibly varied, as well, and though it may not all necessarily result in a tangible “end product,” that farmers can apply to their fields, everything being done at NPARL is ultimately for farmers’ benefit.
“It’s not just about an end product, a lot of what we do here is about better management techniques,” Redlin said.
That fact means that the NPARL can and will research things that private companies won’t because there’s no end product to make a profit off of, according to Redlin, which ultimately means that the work being done by NPARL’s researchers may not only benefit America’s farmers, but the nation as a whole.
“We can tackle issue that don’t have an end product,” Redlin said. “And certainly for anything that’s in the public good, for controlling pollution and things like that, that falls to us.”
Reach Jason Stuart at firstname.lastname@example.org.