Dr. Melzer (left) with a few of the graduate students he mentors in
They’re breaking open their pots. “We didn’t realize they’d grow
so well,” says agrosecurity researcher Mike Melzer. “We can’t keep up with
them!” But buying new pots for the ti plants he’s growing from “clean”
germplasm is a small thing, compared with the way the plants are flourishing.
Not only are their corms bursting out of their containers; their leaves are
longer than his arm. It’s a marked difference from the ti that producers had been
growing before, which he’d discovered was infected with “dozens” of viruses,
many previously unsuspected.
Clean germplasm is an important focus in the Agrosecurity Lab,
which is a member of the National Clean Plant Network. This consortium
researches, produces, and provides pathogenfree planting materials to growers,
radically boosting plants’ health and yield. Growers often don’t think their
stock is infected, because they’ve never known anything different, but after
growing clean “tissue-cultured” plants they’re converts.
This ti plant grown from clean
germplasm is taller than the nursery door, with leaves more than a yard long.
Tissue-culturing involves propagating plantlets from the virus-free
growing tip, or meristem, of the plant, sometimes cryogenically treated for
added sterilization. It’s a conventional technique banana growers use to ensure
they’re not growing plants infected with Banana Bunchy Top Virus, but the applications go far beyond this important use. The
Agrosecurity Lab has been asked to work on sweetpotato next, and after that Dr.
Melzer’s planning to begin on taro. “Who knows if we’ll get the same increased
vigor?” he wonders. “But I think we’ll see something exciting.”
Clean stock is just one concern of this bustling, rapidly
expanding group. The lab is one of only a handful in the country certified to
test for huanglongbing, or citrus greening, a debilitating disease that hasn’t
yet reached Hawai‘i but is devastating citrus groves in Florida. They’ve just
been tapped to provide potato certification programs for several Mainland
states. They’re the first line of defense against numerous bacterial, fungal,
and viral diseases, teaching inspectors to recognize them before they arrive
and showing growers how to deal with them once they’re here. The range of
projects they’re associated with is huge, the lab probably the most diverse in
Perhaps the hugest thing they’re associated with, size-wise, is
their newest project, surveying for the gargantuan coconut rhinoceros beetle.
Dr. Melzer’s group just began in October, and they’re already going strong. If
the lab’s other successes are any indication, the beetle doesn’t stand a