Allison Smart, University of Maine Cooperative Extension assistant professor and plant pathologist, explains how her new and improved plant pathology lab is going to improve what she and her staff can do for the people of Maine.

When the new University of Maine Cooperative Extension Diagnostic and Research Laboratory in Orono opens later this month, it will be among the most biosecure, technologically cutting edge and scientifically advanced laboratories in the state.

That’s a far cry from the cramped and outdated quarters the plant and animal Extension researchers and faculty currently call home.

Four lab areas under one roof

Funded by an $8 million state bond passed in 2014 and $2.1 million share of a $7 million bond approved in 2017, the 28,000-square-foot facility brings together laboratories and research space for plant and pest management and veterinary diagnostics.

“What we have done is brought together four different diagnostic areas,” said John Rebar, executive director of University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “In this one facility there is an insect lab, a plant diagnostics lab, our veterinary diagnostic lab and the aquatic animal lab. This is a facility unlike any in the world that represents a significant upgrade in equipment, capacity and biosecurity.”

Workers were still putting the finishing touches on parts of the facility this past week and the air smelled heavily of new paint and fresh concrete, but Rebar said the building will be ready for the June 21 grand opening.

Currently, Cooperative Extension plans to occupy 21,000 square-feet of the building and lease the remaining space to The National Ocean and Atmospheric Association.

Once the facility is up and running after the June 22 grand opening, Rebar said, members of the public will have no access to much of the facility beyond the entryway.

“People can come in with samples of plants or bugs they want our staff to look at and will engage with a staff member who will take the sample,” Rebar said. “That is as far as the person will get. The sample will be taken and placed either under a hood, in a freezer or a biosecure chamber for quarantine.”

Once a sample is accepted, Rebar said, a decision is made on its fate.

“Samples can be quarantined, disinfected or killed as needed,” he said. “The emphasis is nothing leaves here alive — this is about determining what the pest or disease is and best to manage it.”

In other words, sort of a “Hotel California” for pests — they check in, but never check out.

The facility is set to handle everything from a droopy tomato plant brought in by a home gardner to infected fish from large-scale aquaculture operations.

Up and running first

Allison Smart, University of Maine Cooperative Extension assistant professor and plant pathologist, has already moved into her new lab and begun looking at samples of diseased plants.

“This lab is drastically different and so much better than the lab I was in before,” she said, adding with a laugh, “That’s why I volunteered to be the first to move in.”

In her lab, Smart and her staff will accept plant samples from homeowners, farmers and other growers from around the state who want to know what diseases or pests are infecting their crops.

“We will triage the samples, photograph them and examine them under a dissecting scope, culture them and see what — if any diseases are present,” she said.

Smart is especially excited about the new equipment which will allow her and her staff to examine samples down the the molecular level, something they could not do in their old laboratory.

“We will be able to identify pests and bacteria down to the species,” she said. “This is very important for research and to farmers who need to know if they are seeing new species or ‘races’ of pests and diseases in the state and how to deal with them.”

Plants, pests & aquaculture

Smart’s lab is part of the facility’s pest management unit which also houses a tick lab which is capable of fast and accurate tick diagnostics to determine what pathogens a tick may be carrying and is the only tick identification service in the state.

The unit also houses insect identification lab with new DNA analysis capability, the plant disease diagnostic lab with DNA analysis to identify pathogens down to the level of species or strain; and the Integrated Pest Management and Pesticides Safety Education Programs with new greenhouse space for pest management research.

“There has been a lot of hard work and effort into developing these labs,” said Jacob Olson, project director for the University of Maine System. “Every aspect of this facility had to be well planned [and] we worked with designers from around the world.”

Over in the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, the facility houses equipment for high level necropsies, numerous diagnostic testing options for bacteriology, an aquatic animal health lab and one of the country’s only specialized containment aquarium facilities.

“The testing and research of aquatic samples we will be doing here does not exist anywhere else in Maine,” Rebar said. “We anticipate this portion of the facility will be fully busy all the time with a backlog from companies that want to work with us.”

The aquatic section will accept fish and shellfish samples from private citizens to large scale fish farms interested in not only what may be infecting the fish.

In addition, some of the larger fish farming companies will be able to submit vaccines they have developed for independent testing and verification at the University of Maine facility.

“You are seeing in the news a lot about salmon farms coming to Maine and a lot of research around those can be done here,” Olson said. “The access to a facility like this is a big part of the reason people are wanting to come to Maine to do aquaculture.”

There may be no more biosecure place in Maine than the portion of the facility that encompass the aquaculture laboratories, Olson said.

“These are really rooms within rooms with every drop of liquid that drains out going through an onsite treatment system before going into the sewer,” he said. “Nothing — not the air, not the water — comes in or out without being filtered.”

A game changer for Maine

Rebar said the new facility represents laboratory and research space Maine has needed for a very long time.

“It’s like we are going from horse and buggy technology to the space shuttle,” he said. “This is a real game changer for what we can do for Maine.”

While the majority of the space will be off-limits to the public, Olson did point out every lab may be viewed through interior hallway windows.

“Members of the public may be invited to come in through those hallways so they can see what is going on,” Rebar said. “We want the world to see what we are doing because we are proud of our work.”

The new facility also opens the door for increased partnerships with Maine businesses and farms who will now have direct access to the state of the art techniques and equipment.

“We have always had the quality staff for the work, but not the facility to put them in,” Rebar said. “Our staff has an outstanding national and international reputation and commitment to public service and we now have the people and the facility at the very time Maine’s food industry, the economy and environment needs this support.”

The public can tour the entire lab at 17 Godfrey Lane in Orono between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the June 22 grand opening.

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Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.