Working to prevent agricultural disaster in the new century

Finding new ways to deter both natural and terroristic threats to U.S. crops is a way of life for plant pathologist Bill Schneider. He grew up in Tamarack, Minn., a town of 53 that lies about 60 miles west of Duluth, Minn. His father was a farm-r...

Finding new ways to deter both natural and terroristic threats to U.S. crops is a way of life for plant pathologist Bill Schneider.

He grew up in Tamarack, Minn., a town of 53 that lies about 60 miles west of Duluth, Minn. His father was a farm-raised high school biology teacher and hobby farmer.

"I don't know if people are born to it, but I got my interest in both agriculture and science from my dad," he says.

He earned his bachelor's degree in biology at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, and went on to post-graduate studies at Michigan State, where he earned his doctorate in 1997.

From there, he accepted a post-doctorate job with the Nobel Foundation.


"At that time I was interested in plants and viruses, in particular, in how viruses evolve," he says. "It's not talked about nearly enough, but plant viruses evolve very rapidly, just like HIV does. The reason that there are not too many good resistant genes in plants out there is because the pathogens evolved rather quickly."

Virus detective

Schneider's interest in doing virus evolution work led him to a stint at the Nobel Foundation, one of the few places that would fund that kind of work.

"I was doing some very heavy theoretical stuff," Schneider says.

At the end of those four years, he was looking for teaching jobs at smaller schools back in the Midwest.

"I really love teaching," he says. "I was applying to all these schools because I kind of wanted to get back to the Midwest, but they all thought I was too serious about research."

He eventually took a position as plant pathologist at USDA's Foreign Disease and Weed Science Division at the Army's Fort Detrick in Maryland. Instead of doing theoretical evolution work, Schneider was needed to do diagnostics work, chasing down specific diseases that had more immediate agricultural impact.

"I have three projects that I keep going," Schneider says. "One is the soybean dwarf virus, one is plum pox, and the other is developing pathogen diagnostics."


With regard to soybean dwarf virus, he discovered the soybean aphid could transmit it, thus posing a serious risk to U.S soybean crops.

"Now we're working with other researchers . . . to find out what kind of mutations need to occur and how frequently they occur," he says.

Once they have more answers, they hope to help eliminate this dwarf bean virus entirely, as they did with the plum pox in Pennsylvania.

Joining the army

His third area of responsibility lies in pathogen diagnostics. Fort Detrick is the hub for bioterrorism research -- both human and plant.

"So there are a lot of Army researchers here who spend a significant amount of their time trying to combat anthrax, and all the potential risks that they face," Schneider says.

The researchers investigating biologic threats to humans are far more heavily funded than their counterparts working on crop protection. After the Sept. 11 attack and the anthrax mailings, a presidential directive was issued to create a bioterrorism campus at Fort Detrick. It encouraged scientists from different agencies to work together.

"We're asking the same types of questions," he says. "We're just asking it with different organisms in mind. They're worried about keeping humans healthy, and we're worried about keeping crops healthy."


So Schneider and his colleagues crossed the street and began talking to the Army researchers.

"They had some very cool toys and we've sort of taken advantage of as many of them as we can," Schneider says, and with good reason. "If we're going to, as a country, spend this kind of money to prevent somebody from using anthrax as a weapon, we can use those same technologies to prevent somebody from introducing wheat rust as a weapon."

He says this may be one of the best things to come out of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"We spent a ton of money, but at least we got organized on the bioterrorism end of things," he says.

TIGER project

In late 2005, USDA funded a new project, asking Schneider and other researchers to assist in the development of a new tool, a type of assay, which could detect pathogens. Called the Triangulation Identification for the Genetic Evaluation of Risks project, its goal was to provide an effective method of detecting "any kind of material, regardless of the source."

"It was relatively effective," he says. "If you gave me a plant sample, and you had no idea what it was that was making your plant sick, I could give you a really good idea of where to start."

In the past, research began on diagnosis of pathogens only after one had become a problem.


"We are trying to get ahead of the curve. We're trying to develop the kind of diagnostics that could detect things that we didn't know were going to be there," Schneider says.

There are other, similar assay technologies in the pipeline, he says. One is called "massively parallel sequencing," which looks at the genetic sequences of the host and everything that's in it, and then lets computers figure out what all of it is.

"We're looking for silver bullet-type assays," the researcher says. "We're looking for any assay that can detect anything and everything in a plant sample, all at once."

These technologies could save lives and crops, and lessen the threat to all of us.

"As long as we're thinking about the human side, let's think about crops now, before (terrorists) even begin to think about it," Schneider says. "I think we're actually doing quite well, particularly in the field of agriculture. We're getting ahead of the curve."

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