A simulation designed to test a system that would alert the nation in case of a crop bioterrorism attack passed its first trial last month, according to an Iowa State University plant pathologist.

Forrest Nutter, Iowa State plant disease epidemiologist, organized the exercise that was conducted Jan. 14 and 15 to test the diagnostic and regional communications capabilities in Iowa and Illinois. The test involved the plant disease clinics at Iowa State and the University of Illinois, Iowa's and Illinois' agriculture departments, the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN).

The test was overseen and evaluated by Carla Thomas, assistant director of the Western Plant Diagnostic Network, who gave high marks for those involved in the exercise. "We were really pleased by the excellent coordination and communication that occurred between the federal and state agencies including the land grant universities, the state's departments of agriculture, APHIS and NPDN," Thomas said.

The exercise began when a simulated soybean rust disease sample in the form of a photograph was delivered to the Plant Disease Clinic at Iowa State. After initial identification and a preliminary diagnosis, the suspect soybean rust sample was routed through the diagnostic network to the regional expert lab for soybean rust at the University of Illinois, and then on to the APHIS national lab in Beltsville, Md. for final confirmation.

The entire process took fewer than 30 hours to complete, from initial discovery to the completion of the communication plan. Officials with the NPDN say they plan to continue simulations with the goal to be fully operational by spring 2004. The network and its systems will be frequently updated as it's implemented across the nation.

"The exercise was very successful and the participants all did a superb job in carrying out their respective roles – especially the diagnostic clinicians, Paula Flynn at Iowa State and Nancy Pataky at the University of Illinois," Nutter said.

Five regions make up the NPDN, each with a land grant university serving as a regional center. These regional centers, through the Cooperative Extension Service, interact with growers and are often the first to know of any suspected problems. Once notified, the regional center can use its plant scientists and diagnostic labs to identify the pest or pathogen and suggest an adequate treatment procedure.

Diagnostic labs in all 50 states are participating in the National Plant Diagnostic Network (www.npdn.org). Iowa and Illinois are part of the North Central Plant Diagnostic Network, based at Michigan State University (www.ncpdn.org).

Nutter added that the plant disease used in the test – Asian soybean rust – is not present in the continental U.S., but it is a plant pathogen that presents a substantial threat to Iowa and Illinois agriculture.