Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013 12:00 PM
Matthew Weaver/Capital Press
Washington State University plant pathology professor Tim Murray speaks about the project to scan historical information cards indicating the presence of barberry bushes in his office in Johnson Hall on WSU's Pullman, Wash., campus March 8.
WSU uses old information to create maps of past barberry eradication
By MATTHEW WEAVER
PULLMAN, Wash. -- Researchers are working to ward off stem rust by using historical data about past locations of a plant vital to fungus development.
Washington State University plant pathology professor Tim Murray is leading efforts to find and remove common barberry, a plant which hosts part of the reproduction cycle of stem rust on wheat and barley.
The Pacific Northwest could serve as a nursery for new strains of stem rust that could spread across the rest of the country, Murray said.
From 1918 to 1982, a federal barberry eradication program was in effect throughout the United States. But as stem rust became less of a problem, the program faded. Researchers are concerned about recent outbreaks, indicating the plant is making a comeback.
Under the program, investigators visited farms, filled out information cards and drew maps of the farms to indicate barberry locations.
Most eradication in the Pacific Northwest was done by the 1970s, Murray said.
USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Spokane housed regional cards. Some were locked in a file cabinet, and the key was lost.
"We knew these cards were there for years," Murray said. "But we never really had a compelling reason to pursue them."
In 2008, Murray was asked to develop a national recovery plan for Ug99, the stem rust strain that originated in Uganda. APHIS called in a locksmith to drill open the cabinet and donated the cards to Murray.
The cards are now being scanned and entered into a geographic information system database to produce a map.
If the researchers receive a report of a possible stem rust sighting, they can compare current and past data.
For example, Murray pointed to a possible stem rust sighting in Stevens County. According to past data, sites nearby had two bushes, nine bushes, 33 bushes or 675 bushes, indicating a likely starting point to look for barberry today.
"This is a tenacious plant," Murray said. "After a certain period of time, there were probably some that were missed and some that just re-grew."
Murray is using roughly 13,000 cards from Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana. The researchers scanned about 10,000 of the cards over the past few years.
The regional effort was so well received that Murray's team is taking the project nationally, adding records from Wisconsin and South Dakota.
Murray asked the attorney general's office if any information from the cards needs to be redacted to protect landowner privacy, but all info is available at county records offices. The cards have names and physical locations for the property, and do not include phone numbers or mailing addresses.
"Chances are, whoever was there in 1935 is not there now," Murray said. "The family may still be there."
Colville, Wash., farmer Richard Seitters, 66, remembers eradication crews coming to his father's farm when he was about 8 years old. They'd look for it every 50 feet in the timber areas, and chop the plant down.
Seitters checks each fall, but hasn't found any barberry on his farm.
"The stem rust is a real concern," he said. "I don't think the plant has any value, other than causing damage to the wheat crop."
Murray would like to make the data more accessible and potentially useful again. It's yet to be determined how the project will be deployed and who will have access.
Murray received roughly $70,000 funding from the USDA for the project. Murray is waiting for word on further funding.