At the core of every organism is a secret code containing information about its very being. The National Agricultural Genotyping Center (NAGC) in Fargo is developing genetic tests that help beekeepers, farmers and wildlife biologists manage challenging diseases.
Genomics is the study of all the genes in an organism. This genetic blueprint can reveal markers for specific traits, including natural tolerance or susceptibility to disease.
“In genotyping, we take the traits, or genetic markers, discovered in genomics research and use them to develop a test,” says Megan O’Neil, NAGC lab manager.
“Los Alamos had developed a high-throughput genotyping test which was so much more rapid, and they were looking for ways to apply the test, to speed up detection even more,” says Larry Hoffmann, a Wheatland farmer who served on the committee of corn growers that developed the NAGC.
The work at NAGC reaches beyond conventional agriculture. “Agriculture is plants, animals, insects – you name it. Agriculture touches all parts of our lives, whether we realize it or not,” O’Neil says.
Multiplex Testing for Bees and Wildlife
The far reach of agriculture shows in the first test panel NAGC offered: Bee Care.
“The North Dakota Department of Agriculture provided a list of 11 bacteria and viruses known to affect honeybees and asked us if we could come up with a single test to test for all 11 of them,” O’Neil says.
NAGC lab staff developed a multiplex test that identifies the 11 pathogens.
“Multiplex is a really important strategy that we use to be a high- throughput, low-cost, nonprofit lab,” O’Neil says.
The NAGC is also using a multiple testing strategy for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a neurological disease devastating wild deer populations. CWD testing presently involves examination of deer brain tissue under a microscope.
“We’re developing an assay to test live deer, using blood or saliva samples,” O’Neil explains.
And the final CWD test will go beyond disease identification. “There are genetic markers associated with the natural resistance or susceptibility to contracting CWD,” O’Neil says. “Along with the test to identify whether CWD is present, we’re also developing a molecular genetic test that allows us to say, ‘This animal has the susceptible trait,’ or ‘They have the resistant marker.’”
Private deer farms could start using the dual-pronged test when it is available, and the test could benefit future CWD management in wild deer populations.
Unveiling Imposter Corn Diseases
In 2017, the NAGC began offering an assay that detects the presence of an untreatable corn disease. “Xanthomonas is a bacteria that infects the soil and cornstalk,” Hoffmann says. “It cannot be treated with fungicides, but its symptoms closely resemble other diseases that can be treated.”
If the assay indicates Xanthomonas is responsible for a cornfield’s symptoms, “it saves the farmer a lot of money, and the time, by not applying fungicide,” Hoffmann says.
The NAGC also offers tests for Goss’s Wilt, another corn disease, and two soybean assays. “NAGC is farmer-led, which gives agriculture more influence in research,” North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring says. “It is a great way to help increase production, lower costs and address issues plaguing our industry.”
From honeybees to deer, corn and soybeans, the work at NAGC shows the wide benefits to agriculture of genotyping – and the benefit of scientists working closely with those in the field.
“We’re here to build the assays. We’re scientists, not farmers and producers,” O’Neil says. “It’s been really great to have guidance from the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and the growers saying, ‘These are the problems in our field. What can you do in the lab?’”