NDSU moves in at $18M diagnostic lab

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FARGO, N.D. — The new $18 million North Dakota State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory starts going to work this month — a strengthened front-line defense to protect the region's livestock industry from disease threats.

Laboratory director Brett Webb, director of the lab since Jan. 1, 2017, says the new facility along 19th Avenue, just west of Interstate 29, fits in nicely with other animal agriculture facilities on the west end of the campus. The new lab should be fully operational by the end of October, replacing the lab in Van Es Hall on the main campus.

"I think the staff are fantastically excited to work in a facility of this caliber," Webb says, showing a visitor around the new lab, which he says will offer safer and more efficient operation. Many of the laboratory spaces are provided with diffuse, outside light.

The NDSU lab serves a large audience, across the region and sometimes across the country. It is known for having board-certified toxicologist Michelle Mostrom and can add other capabilities. The lab provides surveillance and rapid diagnosis of diseases that can have big impacts on producers.

Over 60K tests

Webb says the lab offers an array of about 100 tests. In a typical year, the staff handles 60,000 to 80,000 tests. Most come from veterinarians who are submitting them on behalf of their clients. The lab has four faculty with about 16 part-time staff. Nearly half of the budget comes from testing fees and grants.

Most samples at the lab involve animals for disease. Scientists also test feedstuffs for things like mold, nitrates or cyanide toxins, or tissues for trace elements and vitamins for nutritional status. They can also test for pesticides, such as Compound 1080 — a pesticide used in predator control — or for phytoestrogen — a compound found in some plants.

It handles pathology, bacteriology and virology. The staff can use the Polymerase Chain Reaction method for testing bacterial DNA or RNA in samples to check for Johne's disease and West Nile virus. The lab handled numerous water potability tests this year due to the drought, Webb says.

Among other things, the new lab is equipped with a 5,000-pound load capacity incinerator. It burns up to 1,000 pounds of tissue an hour and is twice the capacity as in the past.

Some functions will have triple the space, improving the turnaround time for some tests, Webb says.

Greg Lardy, professor and department head of animal sciences and associate vice president for agricultural affairs, says the lab investment shows foresight with strong political support from the the governor and key legislators. In 2015 the lab was the top priority for the unique State Board of Agricultural Research and Education, a governing board of farmers and ranchers representing a cross-section of commodity organizations.

50-plus years

Webb says a downturn in the oil business in the western part of the state allowed competitive bids that kept the cost under budget, so the lab was able to put in value-added features that will lower operation costs and extend its life.

Lardy thinks the lab is likely to be functional for more than 50 years. About half of the operation budget is covered by user fees. No formal open house has been set, but interested groups can contact the lab

Lardy says Van Es Hall will be used for other agriculture department purposes. In 1972, the legislature appropriated $1.78 million to build it — about one-tenth of today's investment.

Van Es itself replaced an "old" Van Es, which was built in 1909 and demolished in 1973. It is named for Leunis Van Es, a longtime faculty member who was head to the Department of Veterinary Science from 1903-18 and served one year as director of the North Dakota Experiment Station.