Research done for the Department of Defense to detect pathogens and protect military personnel at home and abroad can help lower the 76 million cases of foodborne diseases, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.
Secure Facility Hosts International Research
National research grants are awarded to applicants with a sound approach, relevant expertise, and quality facilities. K-State Research and Extension scientists who have earned national grants are now conducting food safety and wheat disease research in the $54 million biosafety-level 3 Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI) housed in Pat Roberts Hall.
The BRI is the only biosafety level-3 biocontainment research and training facility in the United States that can accommodate high-consequence pathogen research on food animals, food crops, and food processing under one roof. The building biocontainment performance and each research project must be authorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and/or the U.S. Department of Agriculture prior to work with regulated pathogens.
Since 2005, food scientist Randall Phebus and veterinarian Richard Oberst have been funded at $1.5 to $2 million per year by the U.S. Department of Defense to test procedures used by the military to detect accidental or intentional contamination of the food supply for U.S. troops at home and abroad.
“The military procures food -- eggs, dairy products, meat, produce -- from sources around the world,” Phebus said. “They must have accurate analytical technologies to test for contamination before the food is consumed. And those systems must be easy to use, able to withstand field conditions, and mobile.
“We conducted our first project in the BRI in 2008, and we have now begun work with our first regulated Select Agents. Our No. 1 priority is to protect our lab workers and the public.”
“The BRI provides integrated capabilities to conduct research on the impact biological agents can have on food,” said Andre Senecal, technical advisor, Food Safety and Defense, Natick Soldier RDE Center, Natick, Mass. “Diagnostic assays and systems need to be validated in their proper test matrix prior to field use by the Department of Defense (DoD). Lastly, risk assessment data of bio-agent behavior in food and food processing will help the DoD better understand potential threats to the military food supply.”
A team of plant pathologists, led by university distinguished professor Barbara Valent, received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study wheat blast fungus. In 2009, the disease infected 25 to 50 percent of the wheat in Brazil. It also affected yields in Bolivia and Paraguay and was found in Argentina.
Bill Bockus and Jim Stack, of K-State, and Gary Peterson and Kerry Pedley, USDA at Fort Detrick, Md., complete the team. Since December 2009 when the group started working in the facility, they have screened 72 Kansas wheat varieties for susceptibility to wheat blast.
“A few varieties showed significant resistance, others showed no resistance,” said Valent. “The fungus is spreading, and we need to be prepared.”
Their project goals are: to develop tools for rapid detection and accurate diagnosis of the pathogen; identify resistance resources; and establish training resources and a Web-based network to facilitate diagnosis and distribution of resistance resources.
Once the resistance is identified, K-State wheat breeders and faculty in the Wheat Genetics and Genomics Resources Center will work together to breed resistant wheat varieties.