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practical wisdom: ending sudden oak death

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Frequently, a major scientific breakthrough is a matter of the right person being in the right place at the right time. In the recent high-profile case of Sudden Oak Death, Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist Matteo Garbelotto was in just such a position.

One of Garbelotto’s areas of expertise is the study of introduced microorganisms in forest ecosystems, and Garbelotto, along with his colleague Dave Rizzo of UC Davis, first identified the pathogen causing Sudden Oak Death in 2000. The microbe was assumed to be limited to cankers in the Bay Area’s tanoak population, but it soon became apparent that it could be found in the bark, leaves, stems, and needles of understory plants of California’s oak forests, in bay trees of Oregon, and more alarmingly, in timber-producing redwoods and Douglas-firs. The disease was spreading fast and posed a threat to hundreds of thousands of people who were dependent on these trees for their livelihoods.

“Typically, you go into a forest, locate a suspicious plant, and try to culture the pathogen to confirm its presence. But we had too many sources and not enough time. We needed a tool that would allow us to culture from a variety of hosts, and much earlier in the disease process, before the canker even appeared,” explained Garbelotto. “DNA analysis, which was routine in the lab but new to the field, was quick and allowed us to identify the pathogen early in the disease, regardless of the source. The earlier we could detect its presence, the better able we would be to control its spread.”

Just last year, the federal government recognized the DNA analytic process developed by Garbelotto’s CE program as the official tool for identifying the pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death. In the four years since Garbelotto and Rizzo announced that Phytophthora ramorum was the culprit behind Sudden Oak Death, he and his team have found ways to treat the disease.

“The discovery of the pathogen, and the search for a treatment -- because it mattered to the people who depend on these plants for their livelihood -- was a perfect example of how Cooperative Extension is supposed to work. For me, the satisfaction is not in making a scientific discovery, but in feeling that I did something important that will have great impact on people’s lives.”

-Susan Piper

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