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Clean and Green

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 12/23/2014 More stories >>

Dr. Melzer (left) with a few of the graduate students he mentors in
agrosecurity techniques.

Dr. Melzer (left) with a few of the graduate students he mentors in agrosecurity techniques.

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 cleangermplasm is taller than the nursery door, with leaves more than a yard long.

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 the college.

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 chance.