Purdue University has created a center that could be vital in the national effort to protect the country's food supply against foreign plant pests and pathogens that might be introduced through natural means or terrorism.

"We lack a lot of critical information necessary to protect against agents that could damage our crops and agricultural system," says Ray Martyn, who recently stepped down as head of Purdue's Department of Botany and Plant Pathology to take the helm of the newly created Center for Crop Biosecurity on the West Lafayette campus. "We need a coordinated effort to deal with pathogens and pests that could harm our crops."

The existing Purdue University Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory, which is part of the new center, already is part of the National Plant Diagnostic Network. In addition, Purdue, along with various research organizations and the federal government have discussions under way about establishing a national plant biosecurity center within USDA.

"Currently there is no single place where people can go to get information on invasive plant pests and plant pathogens in case of a national emergency," Martyn says. "We don't have a national strategy, although President Bush signed a directive in January 2004 mandating establishment of a national policy to protect our agriculture and food supply from terrorist attacks."

Most potentially destructive foreign, or exotic species, that have invaded the U.S. since Europeans began settling on the continent, arrived through natural means or as byproducts of global trade, Martyn says. A recent example is the soybean rust-causing pathogen Phakospora pachyrhizi, which Hurricane Ivan brought to the U.S. in late 2004.

Though soybean rust hasn't caused major problems in the U.S., the pathogen's progression in Asia and South America is evidence of its potential to create a crisis. Authorities estimate that soybean rust could cause U.S. economic losses as high as $2 billion annually, with yield dropping as much as 10 percent. An invasion of the pathogen could raise production costs an average of $25/acre, according to USDA Economic Research Service experts.

The purpose of Purdue's new center is to identify plants and pathogens that could cause damage to U.S. crops, to find pathways through which pathogens could invade and to determine how to prevent their introduction.

Although soybean rust and other pathogens and pests have entered the U.S. by natural means or trade routes, the possibility exists that terrorists could intentionally introduce pathogens that could damage the country's economy, Martyn says. "We need to be prepared for both unintentional and deliberate introductions."

Sufficient facilities for conducting research on organisms that pose risks to agriculture and the food supply still don't exist in the U.S., Martyn says. One goal at the Purdue biosecurity center is eventually to add a laboratory and greenhouse with higher security so that pathogens being studied can be contained. Only a few such state-of-the-art facilities currently exist in the country.

Experts at Purdue's center will provide education to those who must be on the front lines in dealing with invasions by harmful pests and pathogens, Martyn says. The center also will supply information for, and coordinate with, the Indiana natural resources and biosecurity departments.

The center will work with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in an effort to make certain Purdue's center is at the security level needed to study quarantined plants and diseases, he says.

Because so many exotic plant pests and pathogens enter the U.S. by accident, the center's scientists must study more than just those that pose terror threats, Martyn says.