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New lab opens at Cornell for invasive species research

The new Golden Nematode Quarantine Facility will support scientists' cutting-edge research in the fight against nematodes - microscopic worms that threaten New York State's $54 million potato industry. Above, from left to right, Chris Logue, Director of the Division of Plant Industry for New York Ag and Markets, Gary Mahany, former director of the Empire State Potato Growers Inc., Kathryn J. Boor, Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Ronald P. Lynch Dean, Tom O'Mara, New York State Senator (R,C,I-Big Flats) and Barbara Lifton, New York State Assemblywoman (D-125AD, Tompkins/Cortland) cut the ribbon in front of the new facility. Photo by John Munson/Cornell University.

For the last seven decades, Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) has been leading the fight against nematodes—invasive, microscopic worms that can destroy seasons’ worth of crops. However, researchers had been working in a facility that lacked the infrastructure to keep pace with their innovative work.

On August 1, thanks to a $1.2 million grant from New York State and another $400,000 in federal funding, CALS cut the ribbon on the new Golden Nematode Quarantine Facility, located on the Cornell campus in Ithaca, NY.

The facility is the only research program in North America with expertise in biology, resistance breeding and management of potato-cyst nematodes. At the lab, Cornell scientists work in tandem with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Research Service (ARS).

“Cornell has always had the brain trust for dealing with the nematodes,” said Gary Mahany, former director of the Empire State Potato Growers Inc. and owner of Mahany Farms in Steuben County.

Mahany explained that in Idaho, the failure to quarantine pale-cyst nematodes has led to an ongoing ban on potato exports from certain counties. When pale-cyst nematodes were first discovered there in 2006, Canada, Japan, Korea and Mexico all banned potatoes imports from the state.

While nematodes have been in New York State since 1941, quarantine efforts have helped save the state’s $54 million potato industry. The facility at Cornell has also successfully bred over 20 different types of nematode-resistant potatoes, but some nematodes are adapting to these new varieties.

“We still need new, better varieties of golden nematode-resistant potatoes that are more accepted by our markets, which are potato chip markets,” said Mahany.

He met with New York State Senator Tom O’Mara (R, C, I-Big Flats) to explain why the state and Cornell needed to remain at the forefront of cutting-edge of research. Their conversation spurred the senator into action. He called upon his colleagues in the state senate to secure grant money for a new, biosafe lab and state-of-the-art equipment.

“Cornell’s efforts throughout the past century to contain this threat, and to conduct the research and development that will always be the front line of protection for our regional growers and farmers throughout New York State and the nation, has been remarkable,” said O’Mara. “This upgraded facility will ensure that the college’s enormously important work on behalf of a key agricultural sector will be carried on effectively and successfully." 

Golden nematode cysts attached to potato roots, as viewed through a magnifying lens. Photo by John Munson/Cornell University.

Golden and pale-cyst nematodes can destroy agricultural markets by feeding on the roots of potatoes and other important crops, such as tomatoes, eggplants and some solanaceous weed. However, other soil-based crops, such as beets, carrots, turf grass and nursery-grown plants, can also be excluded from domestic and international trade markets if they grow in uncontrolled nematode-infested areas. 

The threat from these microscopic worms comes not only from the fact that they spread easily in soil, water and wind, but they can live for over 30 years in the ground.

While nematodes have not been reported to affect humans or livestock, attempts to fumigate and eradicate nematodes have hurt farm animals, making long-term quarantines all the more essential to controlling outbreaks.

United States Senate minority leader Charles Schumer called the new lab a win-win for both Cornell and New York State agriculture. “This facility is the main line of defense between New York potato farmers and the potentially catastrophic spread of the golden nematode, which is why I’ve always fought tooth and nail to secure every resource possible for it,” he said.

His sentiment was echoed by Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS.  She said, “We are very grateful to our government partners for helping secure funding for this project. Their efforts demonstrate their unwavering commitment to the vital work conducted at our Land Grant institution, as well as their active support for our state’s farmers. With the new state-of-the-art research equipment, we will be able to better mitigate new threats from nematodes and maintain the stability and success of New York agriculture.”