AgweekTV: National genotyping lab takes off in Fargo, N.D.

FARGO, N.D. -- The new National Agricultural Genotyping Laboratory is up and running in Fargo, N.D., and officials who made it happen want all to see it.

Photo by Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. - The new National Agricultural Genotyping Laboratory is up and running in Fargo, N.D., and officials who made it happen want all to see it.

An open house will be from 12:30 to 4 p.m. June 21, at the laboratory located in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Biosciences Research Laboratory.

Megan Palmer, NAGC lab manager, says the lab is designed as a resource for the producers. They’ll “have a place to go to get the questions that they need answered, answered,” she says. “So we’re here to fulfill that need for the farmers, the producers, other companies and clients, whether it’s animals, plants or a combination of the two.”

Farmers and customers can bring samples of plants and animals to run through a series of laboratory spaces with various biological safety levels, and high throughput extraction and purification of DNA and RNA for analysis.

Other equipment detects and amplifies the target substances the research projects are looking for. The main technique is polymerase chain reaction, which makes millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence.


Richard Vierling, the National Corn Growers Association research and development team head, on a recent visit to Fargo for a Bioindustry Summit, says the lab will go beyond genotyping - determining differences in genetic makeup.

“Genotyping is going to be involved in many things in the food industry, and it’s going to be behind-the-scenes a lot,” Vierling says. “People don’t even know that it’s happening, but it’s something that’s going to be needed.”  

Assay tests The rest of the work will be in developing tests for DNA, proteins and nitrogen-containing compounds among them. A herd of deer or cattle can be tested for the presence of protein-related disease - Chronic Wasting Disease, mad cow or scrapies - without killing the animal. “This is a huge technological breakthrough,” Vierling says.

The lab is in negotiation with a company from the human clinical side to use some next-generation sequencing - patented technology and patented analysis technology - to look at all GMOs in crops and products, Vierling says. “These can be ingredients or finished products. If there is DNA in that product, we can test whether it contains GMOs, or not.”

In a project for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, the lab is testing for eight viruses and two bacteria in honeybees. The test will diagnose honeybee maladies faster than in the past, Palmer says. Instead of a six-month testing period, the new lab is expecting to turn around tests in one week.

Other projects under development will test for the presence of certain genetic modifications in crops. For example, the tests will determine whether seed has the GMOs that are promised, or perhaps whether other crops that are GMO-free, as promised. It might be able to develop a field test for phytophthora root rot in corn, for example, using something called microfluidics.

Still, tests might be able to explain whether a farmer’s seed is delivering all of the “stacked” traits that are designed to protect it from diseases or insects, to verify farmers get what they buy. They’ll even be able to test when someone has simply removed part of a gene sequence, rather than adding DNA.

Priceless value Kevin Skunes, of Arthur, N.D., is on the North Dakota and national corn growers association boards, which helped raise public and private funds, and gathered resources which will total nearly $5 million to establish the lab.


Skunes says the lab will develop small hand testers so each farmer can buy a test kit that will be administered by a handheld device that tells what diseases might be in your corn, for example.

Larry Hoffmann, of Wheatland, N.D., is on the center’s executive committee, and became involved through his work with state and national corn growers associations. He says the process of starting the lab has come along much faster than expected.

“I don’t think a value can be put on it,” Hoffmann says. “What it can do potentially for the area, in the ability to speed up diagnostic processes in all areas is just phenomenal.”

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