environment and natural resources

Biology colloquium to focus on invading species

CORVALLIS - The global threat to biodiversity posed by invading species will be examined at the 61st annual Biology Colloquium at Oregon State University on April 12, titled "Biological Invasions! The Quiet Global Change."

The program will focus on the economic and ecological havoc caused by nonnative invasive species, like the blackberries that must be dug out by the roots, the opossum in your garbage can, or the hitchhikers customs officials try to intercept when they ask if you're carrying any fruit or vegetables.

The event will be held at the LaSells Stewart Center and is free and open to the public, but registration is required. For more information, visit the web site or contact Christi Sheridan at 541-867-0367 (e-mail: christi.sheridan@hmsc.orst.edu).

The colloquium should be of interest to gardeners, fishing enthusiasts, bird watchers or anyone interested in ecological protection, organizers say.

OSU began hosting an annual biology colloquium in 1940 as a forum for public discussion of research topics relevant to the academic mission of the university and the lives of students and citizens.

An invasive species, experts say, is a newcomer that isn't a good neighbor. For instance, the brown tree snake is implicated in the virtual disappearance of native songbirds on Guam. The gypsy moth made lunch out of Pacific Northwest forests. Nutria today chomp their way through significant portions of public marshland in Chesapeake Bay.

Starlings, introduced by homesick European colonists, compete with regional songbirds for food and nesting areas across the U.S. And zebra mussels, such effective filter feeders they can starve neighboring native clams to death, became known for their skill at plugging pipes.

In the Pacific Northwest, invasive species include the nutria, the European green crab, and a plethora of plant invaders that choke out native vegetation and in some cases alter habitat. There's also the incredibly prolific and tenacious Himalayan blackberry, various crop weeds such as leafy spurge and cheatgrass, and the sunny but sneeze-inducing Scotch Broom, implicated in historical fires that swept through Bandon, Ore.

All of these invaders live in ecological balance in their native habitats. But lacking natural controls, their exploding populations can rupture the ecological balance of their new home, wiping out regional species in the process.

Many invasive species get a foothold due to human intervention, scientists say.

New species often get introduced deliberately by homeowners ordering plants or bringing pets or plants home from trips; by hunters wanting a favorite game animal or a new fishing challenge; by authorities pressed to solve problems ranging from erosion to insect infestations. Some species are simply hitchhikers, tagging along with humans and our cargo as we hopscotch around the globe.

According to the Nature Conservancy and U.S. Department of Agriculture, invasive species have contributed to the decline of more than 400 endangered and threatened species in the U.S. Given the pressures on remaining ecosystems, some worry that invasive species may even alter the course of evolution.

Eradicating invasive populations once they are established can be so difficult and damaging to native neighbors that every state in the nation has been asked to develop a formal method of preventing, identifying and stopping invasions before they take hold. President Clinton created a national Invasive Species Council last February to oversee that effort.

Countries use trade policies to attempt to control the importation of diseases and unwanted species. Agriculturists and natural resource managers frequently must rely on chemical controls for established invasions, and pass along to the consumer the cost of herbicides and crop losses.

The financial costs are staggering.

The European gypsy moth is thought to have cost the U.S. economy $764 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The zebra mussel alone may cause $5 billion in damages by the year 2002. And the annual impact of nonnative weeds on the U.S. economy is roughly $13 billion.

Websites and other resources exist to inform gardeners, outdoors lovers and travelers about the problem and how to avoid adding to it. Visit the links page of the colloquium website or contact the Nature Conservancy, the Native Plant Society, the National Park Service, Oregon Sea Grant, or your county Extension agent.


Christi Sheridan, 541-867-0367

Task force to examine well water at OSU research site

CORVALLIS - A task force including representatives of Oregon State University, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Health Division, and the Linn County Health Department has been formed to determine why trout at an OSU research site have such a high rate of liver cancer.

The OSU fish research laboratory, located east of Corvallis in Linn County, reported rates of cancer in rainbow trout that were 100 times higher than normal. Water for the lab is pumped into the facility from wells.

Researchers will begin analyzing tissue samples from the fish to see if they can determine whether the toxicity can be linked to a chemical contaminant, according to Larry Curtis, head of the Department of Molecular and Environmental Toxicology at OSU and chair of the multi-agency task force.

The DEQ will begin regularly testing the water in hope of identifying the contaminant. It may take a series of heavy rainfalls to trigger any potential problem with the water supply, however, Curtis said. "We have begun the process of trying to identify what is causing these high cancer rates in the fish," Curtis said. "It is hard to say how long it will take, especially if the contamination is occurs periodically."

Curtis said researchers from OSU and the other agencies are exploring the development of a continuous, in-line water monitoring system for the research facility's wells.

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Larry Curtis, 541-737-3791

Scientists create first complete image of Himalayan fault, subduction zone

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An international team of researchers has created the most complete seismic image of the Earth’s crust and upper mantle beneath the rugged Himalaya Mountains, in the process discovering some unusual geologic features that may explain how the region has evolved.

Their findings, published this week in the journal Science, help explain the formation of the world’s largest mountain range, which is still growing.

The researchers discovered that as the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates collide, the Indian lower crust slides under the Tibetan crust, while the upper mantle peels away from the crust and drops down in a diffuse manner.

“The building of Tibet is not a simple process,” said John Nabelek, an Oregon State University geophysicist and lead author on the Science study. “In part, the mountain building is similar to pushing dirt with a bulldozer except in this case, the Indian sediments pile up into a wedge that is the lesser Himalayan mountains.

“However, an important component of the mass transfer from the upper crust of India to the Himalayas also occurs at depth through viscous processes, while the lower crust continues sliding intact farther north under the Tibet plateau,” Nabelek added.

The findings are important because there has not been clear scientific consensus on the boundaries and processes for that region’s tectonic plates. In fact, the piecemeal images gathered by previous research have led to a series of conflicting models of the lithospheric structure and plate movement.

In this study, the international research team – called Hi-CLIMB (Himalayan-Tibetan Continental Lithosphere during Mountain Building) – was able to create new in-depth images of the Earth’s structure beneath the Himalayas.

The interface between the subducting Indian plate and the upper Himalayan and Tibetan crust is the Main Himalayan thrust fault, which reaches the surface in southern Nepal, Nabelek said. The new images show it extends from the surface to mid-crustal depths in central Tibet, but the shallow part of the fault sticks, leading to historically devastating mega-thrust earthquakes.

“The deep part is ductile,” Nabelek said, “and slips in a continuous fashion. Knowing the depth and geometry of this interface will advance research on a variety of fronts, including the interpretation of strain accumulation from GPS measurements prior to large earthquakes.”

Nabelek, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, said the lower part of the Indian crust slides about 450 kilometers under the southern Tibetan plate and the mantle appears to shear off and break into sub-parallel segments.

The researchers found evidence that subduction in the fault zone has been occurring from both the north and south sides – likely at different times in its geologic history.

In this project, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, the researchers deployed and monitored about 230 seismic stations for a period of three years, cutting across 800 kilometers of some of the most remote terrain in the world. The lowest-elevation station was at 12 meters above sea level in Nepal; the highest, nearly 5,500 meters in Tibet. In fact, 30 of the stations were higher than 5,000 meters, or 16,400 feet.

“The research took us from the jungles of Nepal, with its elephants, crocodiles and rhinos, to the barren, wind-swept heights of Tibet in areas where nothing grew for hundreds of miles and there were absolutely no humans around,” Nabelek said. “That remoteness is one reason this region had never previously been completely profiled.”

Other authors on the Science study include Gyorgy Hetenyi and Jerome Vergne of Ecole Normale Superieure in France; Soma Sapkota and Basant Kafle, Department of Mines and Geology in Kathmandu, Nepal; Mei Jiang and Heping Su, Chinese Academy of Geologic Sciences; John Chen, Peking University in Beijing; Bor-Shouh Huang, Academia Sinica in Taiwan; and the Hi-CLIMB Team.

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John Nabelek, 541-737-2757

Multimedia Downloads

Soma Sapkota

Soma Sapkota, of Nepal’s Department of Mines and Geology, at a seismic station in barren, wind-swept central Tibet. (photo courtesy of OSU’s John Nabelek)

Mt. Everest

The Hi-CLIMB (Himalayan-Tibetan Continental Lithosphere during Mountain Building) seismic station at the Mt. Everest base camp in Tibet. (photo courtesy of OSU’s John Nabelek)

Chitwan National Park in Nepal

The researchers go through Chitwan National Park in Nepal after completing the first phase of the network deployment. (photo courtesy of OSU’s John Nabelek)

Restoring gravel mining areas helps fish, scientist says

CORVALLIS - Restoring the land around exhausted Willamette Valley gravel mines as a substitute for natural floodplains lost to development in the 19th and 20th centuries can help endangered fish and other native species, an Oregon State University researcher says.

"Our experimentation with the restoration of off-stream gravel mine areas with pits less than 20 feet deep appears to be positive for fish, plants and animals, when the pits are not too deep," said OSU fisheries ecologist Peter Bayley.

Bayley and colleagues are doing restoration work, in cooperation with the gravel mining industry and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, around two former mine sites near Corvallis and one near Harrisburg. The research includes making surface water connections by installing channels or culverts to connect the areas to the Willamette River.

"Early data suggests that there are more native species using the restored areas with increased access to the main river, especially during October to May," and that fish grow faster when they are in these areas rather than in the river, Bayley said. This could make ocean-going fish such as juvenile chinook salmon larger and more able to fend for themselves when they enter the ocean phase of their lives, he added.

Besides young salmon, native fish such as cutthroat trout may benefit from restoring floodplains, according to Bayley.

The idea behind the research, the OSU researcher explained, is to partially restore natural floodplain systems that used to exist around the Willamette and other western Oregon rivers. Since the 1850s, he said, floodplains have been isolated from the rivers to allow farming, housing and other human uses.

"We're trying to restore the floodplain areas associated with shallow mines that are less than 20 feet deep, rather than maintain the gravel ponds themselves in their present form," Bayley said. "Backwaters and floodplain lakes are rich with zooplankton. Also, terrestrial creatures such as earthworms, slugs and earwigs are made available as food for fish by flooding.

"Historically, during in the rainy season when the river expanded into floodplains, fish could follow food out into the fields and forests and 'harvest' the bounty produced there during the summer," Bayley said. "For those that migrated, it was like a stop-off diner on their way to the ocean. They still feed like this even when small floodplains are flooded for only a few days."

Bayley has done similar research on the upper Mississippi River and in the Amazon Basin. He started his current research in 1998 by establishing a monitoring program. He and his graduate student Cyndi Baker used a combination of capture methods to identify the fish that lived in the three gravel pits before they were relinked to the Willamette River.

So far, they have found 10 native species of fish out of 20 native species living in the river, as well as 10 non-native species.

"Even before we connected these areas to the Willamette River we noticed young chinook entering the ponds during extremely high floods," he said. Now, with the ponds reconnected to the river, more native fish are entering the areas during the rainy season, the research suggests.

The percentage of non-native fish is higher during July and August when no fish from the river can reach the areas.

"We don't expect to rid these areas of non-native fish," Bayley said, "but we want to learn what we can do to help natives thrive."

Restoration of the areas around gravel ponds with native trees and other plants that stabilize the land surface or provide sources of food should also be of benefit to other creatures such as western pond turtles and red-legged frogs, Bayley believes.

The researcher said finding a beneficial use for former gravel mining areas may surprise some Oregonians. But information on benefits of floodplain habitats to native fishes in Washington State and British Columbia suggests that similar benefits would result in the Willamette Basin.

"When the off-stream mining is finished at a site, parts of the area can be returned to agriculture, but not all of it," he said. "To me the answer to what should be done with the land is very clear.

"We lack natural floodplains while agricultural land dominates the landscape," he said. "However, a functioning floodplain does not have to be a continuous zone along the whole river, and restoration of the small amount of land in off-channel gravel mining would be beneficial locally and provide examples of what could be gained in other floodplain areas."

Providing funding or other support for the research program were the Willamette River Gravel Fund; Morse Brothers, an aggregate company based at Tangent; the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board; the Corvallis Environmental Center; the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; the Oregon Concrete & Aggregate Producers Association; and the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.


Peter Bayley, 541-737-0569

Chemical discovered that causes plant tumors

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers in Oregon and elsewhere have discovered a new class of chemicals they call "bruchins" which, even at extraordinarily low levels of exposure, signal a plant to form a benign tumor, apparently as part of the plant's defensive mechanism against an insect pest.

The study, done by scientists from Oregon State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a private company, will be published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. There is no immediate commercial application that's apparent about this discovery, the researchers said, but the unusual capabilities of this group of chemicals is highly interesting. It's also the first chemical of this type ever identified that can induce tumor formation in plants, they said.

"This is an extremely active new class of chemicals that has a clear impact on plant growth regulation," said William Proebsting, a professor of horticulture at OSU. "We could observe its biological impact on the plant at levels so low we couldn't even physically detect the chemical. Whenever you find a new group of chemicals with this level of activity you get a little excited. And this is also the type of basic discovery that often sets the stage for later applications."

In this research, the scientists studied the interaction of pea plants with pea weevils, a tiny insect that's smaller than a ladybug but is one of the worst insect pests of peas. In order to reproduce, the pea weevil needs to lay its eggs on a pea pod. But the pea plant has apparently developed an innovative and effective response to this insect attack.

When the egg is laid, the pea plant detects in the pea weevil a type of chemical, which the Oregon researchers identified and are calling bruchins (in reference to the scientific classification, bruchid) to which pea weevils belong.

This chemical triggers the pea pod to begin a process of cellular division that actually forms a small tumor, lifting the pea weevil egg up and away from the pea pod. In this position it helps to prevent the emerging weevil larvae from burrowing into the pea pod. It may also fall off, dry out or be eaten by predators, the researchers said, and it reduces the chance that the pea weevil will actually succeed in infesting a pea.

"It's pretty obvious this is a natural defense mechanism that the pea plants have developed, and for purposes of survival in nature, it works pretty well," said Robert Doss, a plant physiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and OSU Department of Horticulture. Doss was a co-principal investigator on the study along with Proebsting and James Oliver, a chemist with the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md.

All practical applications aside, the scientists said, a chemical such as this is a wonder of nature.

"This may or may not lead to something that is useful in agriculture or elsewhere, but it always helps to understand the relationship between organisms," Doss said. "And anything we find that relates to the control of cell division is pretty important."

The new bruchin chemicals not only are active at extremely low levels, the researchers found, but the reaction of the pea plants to them is highly precise. When artificially applied to pea plants, tumors began to form almost immediately on the pea pods - where they would have a useful role in nature in repelling pea weevils - but there was no effect on most other parts of the same plant.

Earlier researchers had identified a gene in the pea plant that is required for formation of these tumors. Now the Oregon researchers and their collaborators have discovered the key chemical produced by an insect pest that triggers the process.

A number of other plants have similar "galls," or plant tumors on them, the researchers said. The round scabs often found on oak leaves are one example. But this process often actually works to the benefit of the insects that interact with these plants, Doss said, so in various natural systems it's not clear that there is any single evolutionary explanation for the formation of these tumors.

The discovery of basic plant growth mechanisms can have important implications, the scientists said. When a type of plant hormone called "auxin" was first identified years ago that played a role in cell elongation, there was no obvious use for the findings. Later, this basic information led to the creation of root-stimulating hormones, new types of herbicides and other products.

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William Proebsting, 541-737-5454

Volunteers, experts tracking down Oregon plants

CORVALLIS - A grass-roots collaboration of scientists, college students, and everyone from teenagers to senior citizens is working in Oregon to produce something you would think the state has, but it actually doesn't - a modern, complete manual to identify all of the plants in the state.

Called the Oregon Flora Project, the effort is already six years old and may continue for another decade. It's no small task, considering that Oregon has the fourth largest plant species diversity of any state in the nation - 4,430 species, subspecies and varieties known and probably more yet to be discovered. But this information is critical for studying everything from rare plant conservation to the potential effects of climate change or invasions of foreign species, say experts at Oregon State University who are coordinating this project.

"The last manual of this type was produced in 1961 with data mostly from the 1950s and before," said Scott Sundberg, an OSU research assistant professor and coordinator of the project. "Since then probably one-third of the plant names have changed based on extensive botanical research. We really need this information, and almost anyone can contribute if they are willing to volunteer their time."

So far, 230 volunteers around the state have helped in the project, many of them OSU faculty or members of the Native Plant Society of Oregon, a partner and financial supporter of this project. People interested in contributing to the project can do so in many ways, from providing lists of plant species for an area to entering information into databases.

The state has been divided into 174 "blocks" of 576 square miles each, Sundberg said, and volunteers can "adopt" a block to observe and list the plant species found there.

Eventually, the project hopes to produce a checklist that catalogues the plants growing throughout the state; an atlas that maps information about plant distribution on top of such data as precipitation or elevation; and a flora, which is a manual, in both printed and electronic form, for identifying plants.

"These books are as essential as a dictionary for identifying plants," said Linda Hardison, an OSU research associate. "With Oregon's rich and unique habitats, from coastal dunes to mountain and desert, the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming. But this is how people can identify the plants of the state and measure our biodiversity. It's difficult to study anything if you don't know what's out there."

Sundberg says eventually the project may cost $2 million and take up to 15 years. So far, it's been operated on a shoestring budget with free volunteer help, and even small donations are welcome.

It received one substantial boost when Kenton Chambers, professor emeritus at OSU and former director of the OSU Herbarium, started an endowment for the project by selling his 40-year stamp collection for $28,000 and donating the proceeds.

Persons interested in volunteering their help for this project may contact Sundberg at Oregon Flora Project, OSU Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, 2082 Cordley Hall, Corvallis, Ore., 97331-2902, or sundbers@bcc.orst.edu. Tax-deductible donations to support the work can be made by sending checks to Sundberg, made out to the OSU Foundation.

A similar flora project that was done in California took 15 years and yielded a 1,400-page book. The data includes such information as species name, habitat, morphological characteristics, distribution, rarity of the plant, elevation range, horticultural value, and whether the plant is native or exotic.

Scientists involved in this project include taxonomists, biogeographers, computer programmers, statisticians, ecologists, cartographers and geoscientists. Individuals helping out range from professional botanists to high school students and retirees looking for a good excuse to take a nature hike.

Among other things, there is always the chance of discovering a new plant species that no one ever knew existed in Oregon. Large areas of the state have never been adequately explored, Sundberg said, especially some of the remote parts of eastern and southwestern Oregon.

From 1975 to 1994, 58 new species, subspecies or varieties of plants were found in the state - one of the newest is calochortus umpquaensis, or the Umpqua mariposa lily. Or, you can look for plants that may be extinct - Clarkia heterandra, the small-fruited clarkia, hasn't been found in the state since 1888. More information about the Oregon Flora Project can be found at its Web site.

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Scott Sundberg, 541-737-4338

Program to address biotechnology controversies

CORVALLIS - Oregon State University is beginning a new "Program for the Analysis of Biotechnology Issues" that will try to provide impartial and scientifically accurate information to the public about some of the most pressing issues surrounding biotechnology.

Terri Lomax, an OSU professor of botany and plant pathology, has been appointed to a part-time Extension position as the temporary director of this innovative new program, which will be supported by the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. It will begin immediately.

Combining science and public communication, this will be one of only three university outreach efforts of its type in the nation. It will try to inject scientific accuracy and public education into a field that is increasingly controversial, officials say, and hopefully provide consumers a more balanced option to the often-conflicting viewpoints of private industry or social activists.

"As a public university, we're going to examine the many issues surrounding biotechnology, the real science that is being done, and communicate those findings to the public, whatever they may be," Lomax said. "The citizens, consumers and farmers of America increasingly are asking for a source they can trust for information about biotechnology, and we think OSU has the resources to meet that need."

Lomax said she plans to draw upon a wealth of expertise at OSU in developing the new program, including gene researchers, ecologists, economists, philosophers, and science communicators, in addition to input from an external advisory board. A web site, public speaking engagements, interaction with the news media, and education of county Extension agents are all planned in the new program.

As it evolves, officials in the College of Agricultural Sciences said they eventually hope to expand programs in this area.

"This field is complicated and we need people who can understand both the science and the social concerns," said Mike Burke, associate dean of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. "As an accomplished scientist and excellent communicator, we believe Terri Lomax is the ideal person to get this program moving and tap into the other outstanding faculty here at OSU.

"Biotechnology is a field of great social, scientific and economic significance to the world, and OSU is now going to make a serious commitment to improving communication in this area," Burke said. "We think this new program can perform a valuable, even unique service to the public."

As a growing, global industry, the fruits of gene research are now in the commercial marketplace everywhere from the grocery store to the doctor's office. But as this multi-billion dollar revolution in science has evolved, critics have raised many concerns and legitimate questions, Lomax said.

How is this science controlled and regulated? How can researchers make sure there will be no unwanted or uncontrolled transfer of new genetic traits from one organism to another? Are there any human health risks from bioengineered products? Is biotechnology really needed to meet our food, fiber, medical and other needs? What are the alternatives, and what are their relative costs and risks, if society chooses not to use biotechnology?

How is genetic engineering similar to or different from traditional plant breeding techniques? Should the products that have been created with biotechnology be labeled as such in the marketplace? And what are the philosophical or ethical implications of biotechnology?

Sometimes these concerns have been voiced in regulatory hearings or social protests, Lomax said. Other times they have taken the form of violence and vandalism. In Europe, progress in developing or marketing new genetically modified products has ground almost to a halt. In the United States, many companies are reluctant to make a major commitment to the field in light of the uncertainties.

And many consumers, Lomax said, simply aren't sure what to think or whom to believe.

"We'd like to see this program help to answer many of these questions with an approach that people can trust," Lomax said. "At first we'll act primarily as a clearinghouse, helping to find accurate information, interpret it in ways people can understand and pass it along. Later on, we hope to do more original study right here at OSU on both the scientific and social issues."

Lomax is an educator and plant molecular biologist who, in her research work, has used genetic techniques as a tool to understand how plants grow. OSU has many other scientists who work in different aspects of gene research, from crop agriculture to animal science, biomedicine, forestry, pollution control and even the molecular basis of aging. Altogether, about 90 faculty from six colleges work at least partly with biotechnology. The state of Oregon is looking to biotechnology as a major part of its economic growth. And on Wall Street, it's one of the huge growth industries of recent years.

But the new program at OSU will be designed to be neither a proponent of the biotechnology industry, university officials say, nor a forum for unsubstantiated charges. Rather, they say, it will try to identify, interpret and present to the public scientific information on biotechnology as accurately as possible, and let the facts fall where they may.

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Terri Lomax, 541-737-5278

Naturally occurring toxin cause of death in Oregon dog

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A dog that died suddenly after being in the water near Elk Creek in southern Oregon late last month has tested positive for anatoxin-a, a neurotoxin released by naturally occurring blue-green algae, Oregon State University technicians have confirmed.

The dog was tested at OSU’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which confirmed the cause of death. At least two other dogs in the same area have died recently under similar circumstances, presumably from the same cause.

“Blue-green algae, or Cyanobacteria, produce toxins that can result in illness and death,” said OSU’s Jerry Heidel, director of the state’s only accredited veterinary diagnostic lab. “A ‘bloom’ or rapid increase in the growth of these algae results in a large number of these organisms in the water. Algae ingested with this water are rapidly broken down in the stomach and potent toxins are released, which can be fatal.”

Heidel said anatoxin-a is a strong neurotoxin that causes almost immediate clinical signs, including muscle tremors, respiratory disease and convulsions. Respiratory paralysis can lead to death within 20 to 30 minutes, he added.

“Once ingested, there isn’t a lot a person can do,” Heidel said. “Diluting the toxins by drinking clean water probably won’t even help. Immediate treatment by a veterinarian is essential, but the prognosis once clinical signs begin is poor. The real key is prevention – and that can be difficult to do.”

Heidel said these naturally occurring neurotoxins also can harm humans, which is why some Oregon lakes have closed in recent years during algal blooms. Livestock also are susceptible to anatoxin-a, and several cows die each year after ingesting stagnant pond water.

Heidel said algal blooms occur in standing, or slow-moving water, during warm temperatures – usually in summer – when there is a good nutrient source to promote growth. Winds can concentrate the algae along shorelines, he added, increasing opportunities for people and animals to contact and ingest the organisms.

“Oregon agencies monitor popular bodies of water frequented by the public for the presence of algae blooms and do a good job of issuing alerts when those waters are potentially dangerous,” Heidel pointed out. “But the public needs to be aware that these potentially fatal blooms can occur in any body of standing or slow-moving water.

“If you take your dog for a walk in the woods, or along a drying creek or lake bed, watch for stagnant, often cloudy water that appears to have algal growth,” he added.

OSU’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory provides the state with a range of animal disease diagnostic services to veterinarians, livestock producers, pet owners, biomedical researchers, and state and federal agencies. More than 16,000 animal tissue and fluid specimens are received annually by the laboratory for diagnostic evaluation. The laboratory also provides a variety of diagnostic procedures, including necropsy, histopathology, virology, bacteriology, clinical pathology, serology and toxicology.

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Jerry Heidel, 541-737-6964

Genome of “potato famine” pathogen sequenced

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A large team of researchers has successfully sequenced the entire genome of one of the most famous pathogens in world history – which caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s – in work that could ultimately help address a resurgence of this pathogen that is still causing almost $7 billion dollars of agricultural losses annually around the world.

Completion of the project, announced today in the journal Nature, is an important advance that could lead to new avenues of attack on this destructive pathogen, experts say. The work was led by the Broad Institute of Harvard University and MIT, and included collaborators from dozens of other institutions to make a task of this magnitude possible.

“Scientists have studied this pathogen for 150 years and there’s still a great deal we don’t know about it,” said James Carrington, professor and director of the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing at Oregon State University and collaborator on the project. “It caused one of the most important famines in history and is still a major problem that costs billions of dollars to fight.”

In the short term, Carrington said, studies based on the new genetic “map” may help explain why the pathogen has been so aggressive, virulent and persistent, despite efforts to breed resistance to it. In the long run, the ability to breed far better plants and reduce use of chemicals will benefit from knowing exactly what genetic traits to look for and where they may be found on the huge genome of this pathogen, which has 240 million “base pairs” of DNA.

The pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, is commonly known as “late blight” and can infect potatoes, tomatoes and some other plants. Through its history it has been responsible for many crop epidemics, not the least of which was the Irish potato famine that led to the death of more than one million people in Ireland and a huge wave of immigration to the United States.

“This is probably the most costly plant pathogen, per acre, that we’ve ever had to deal with,” said Nik Grunwald, a plant pathologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and a courtesy associate professor of plant pathology at OSU. “Part of the problem is that we’ve identified and can grow potatoes with resistance to late blight, but they aren’t the varieties that the marketplace expects.”

The vast majority of potatoes consumed around the world are still russet potatoes that are inexpensive and highly popular, prized for the long, golden french fries they can produce – and extremely vulnerable to this pathogen, Grunwald said. But even with this pathogen to battle, potatoes are an important alternative to cereal crops and the fourth largest food crop in the world.

“We have some potato varieties that are completely resistant to late blight,” Grunwald said, “but most farmers are still growing russets because that’s where the demand is, even if they have to use up to 15 chemical sprays a season to produce them.”

According to Carrington, the genome of P. infestans is unusual, with long stretches of “repetitive DNA” that comprise almost 75 percent of its genome and play some role in its virulence and ability to adapt so rapidly to new environments. Many plants have evolved mechanisms for pathogen resistance, but this pathogen appears to tap into this odd, but massive collage of highly-repeated genome segments to overwhelm those defenses.

“These long sequences of repeating DNA contain virulence determinants, and those provide the ability for Phytophthora to change and adapt so readily to plant defenses,” Carrington said. “We believe it’s the key to the pathogen’s virulence.”

Researchers in Oregon, at both OSU and the USDA, will use their expertise in gene “silencing” – understanding what controls the genes that are activated and what turns them off - as a key part of their effort to decipher the secrets of this pathogen. Other researchers around the nation will continue work to learn about the basic biology and pathology of late blight.

“We’ve made great strides in recent years to do genome sequencing, it’s now becoming almost routine,” Carrington said. “But for these large projects we’re combining the use of powerful computers with teams of chemists, computational scientists, plant pathologists and many other experts to accomplish something that would take a smaller research group a lifetime.”

The researchers said in their report that “P. infestans remains a critical threat to world food security, and the genome sequence is a key tool to understanding its pathogenic success.”

Just this year, an outbreak of late blight has caused unusually early and severe damage to tomato and potato crops in the eastern United States. It’s difficult to control even with applications of fungicides, experts say, and can kill plants faster than almost any other disease.

In the mid-1990s, new and exotic strains of P. infestans made news headlines around the world. Particularly in the U.S. and Canada, the new strains appeared to be as or more pathogenic than any known previous strains, including those that caused the Irish potato famine.

Additional chemical treatments were routinely used and made it clear that, after more than a century, this pathogen has lost none of its virulence. The Oregon researchers believe that the new genome knowledge will accelerate development of chemical-free control methods.

This research was supported by the USDA and the National Science Foundation.

Story By: 

James Carrington, 541-737-3347

Public interest growing in safety of well water

CORVALLIS - An outpouring of public interest at some recent informational forums about well water suggests there are a lot of Oregonians who are concerned - often with good reason - that their drinking water is not safe, and want to find out what they can do about it.

Several "Well Water Clinics" operated by the Home-A-Syst program at Oregon State University recently concluded in the central Willamette Valley. About 1,000 concerned residents attended those and other sessions. This was "a level of interest that was far more than we had anticipated," said Gail Glick Andrews, an Extension water quality educator with the OSU Department of Bioresource Engineering.

"What this indicates to me is that people are really craving information and want to protect their home water supply," Andrews said. "The odd thing is that many of them thought they were the only ones who didn't know much about this issue. The reality is that many or most people are poorly informed."

One major step that could help address that problem, Andrews said, is new information available on the Internet that will help people learn what they can do to protect their well water supplies. The web address is http://osu.orst.edu/extension/wellwater.

According to Andrews, as many as one-fourth to one-half of the private wells in the state have surface contaminants in them. In some areas, up to three wells out of four may have problems or the users have concerns about nitrate levels.

And with summer approaching, Andrews said, the time is ideal for people to inspect their well systems, have the water tested and make any necessary changes or repairs while the weather cooperates.

"The most basic thing that people don't understand about private water supply is that they personally are the regulator, inspector, maintenance manager, accountant and consumer," Andrews said. "This is not something that's taken care of by some government agency. So if people want clean, safe water to drink from a private well, no one else is going to do anything about it."

The good news, she said, is that there are several support agencies people can look to for information to get started. County Extension offices are the best place to start, she said. They can also obtain information from the new web site, or contact Andrews via e-mail at gail.glick.Andrews@orst.edu.

Andrews said that if properly constructed and maintained, most private wells in Oregon actually produce very safe water. The natural filtering action of soil tends to control bacteria and viruses. Problems are most common with any well-drained soil that speeds the movement downward of surface contaminants, especially in agricultural areas that are heavily fertilized.

Testing for coliform bacteria and nitrate levels every one to three years is recommended, Andrews said, and contrary to common assumptions, taste is not a good indicator of water quality. Some crystal clear water can be contaminated and some foul-tasting water can be fine.

The Extension literature outlines a number of fairly simple things homeowners can do to help protect their well water. They include:

  • Locate your well, septic tank and drain field, as the first step towards managing and protecting these areas.
  • Have your septic tank pumped about every three to five years, depending on household usage patterns.
  • Remove any chemicals stored in your well house, and protect the soils around your property from contamination by oil, gasoline and household chemicals.
  • Make sure there is no water standing around the top of your well.
  • Ensure that a sanitary seal caps your well, to keep out foreign objects and surface contaminants.

Andrews said that the informational and educational programs she works with will continue their efforts around Oregon, and more community educational forums will be planned.

"The main thing people need to keep in mind is that they personally are responsible for making sure their well water is safe, and that they do need to be informed about the issues," Andrews said. "But there is plenty of information available to help, and often some fairly simple changes are all that's needed to correct any problems that are found."

Story By: 

Gail Andrews, 541-541-737-6294