Work in progress
Construction on the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, in Manhattan is just getting started, and it will be six years before the facility is fully operational.
But already, the scientists who work at the adjacent Biosafety Level 3 Biosecurity Research Institute and those at the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the laboratory that NBAF will replace, are working together to make sure research continues without interruption on the deadly pathogens that represent the greatest threat to the nation’s livestock and food crops.
“We have even tackled a couple of projects that Plum Island can’t do,” says Stephen Higgs, who became research director at the Biosecurity Research Institute, or BRI, at K-State about seven months ago. “We’re working with a vaccine strain of Rift Valley fever virus, a zoonotic pathogen that Plum Island does not have permits to work with.”
• NBAF is under construction, but research work has already begun in Kansas.
• Rift Valley fever and disease vector studies are major work at BRI.
• BRI is cultivating a workforce for the NBAF when it opens in six years.
The collaboration of K-State and USDA on Rift Valley fever research is a favorite project for Higgs, who has spent most of his career studying similar diseases and the vectors by which they are transmitted, especially those spread by mosquitoes and other blood-feeding insects.
An insectary has been completed for the BRI, allowing the study of disease vectors as well as the microbial pathogens and the animals they infect.
“That’s a big step for the BRI,” Higgs says. “The ability to study vectors is not available at Plum Island.”
He says Rift Valley fever is a potential threat to the U.S. livestock industry, because it is widespread in Africa and the vectors to spread it are already here, much the same as West Nile virus a decade ago.
While research on such exotic diseases draws attention, Higgs says the work of the 20 researchers inside the BRI touches on a wide variety of animal and plant pathogens. And that work, Higgs says, is just as important as the headline-grabbing exotic disease research.
“The combination of research on animal and plant pathogens, along with food safety and security, make this laboratory unmatched anywhere in the world,” he says.
Higgs notes that part of the responsibility of the BRI is to create a workforce that will be able to populate the NBAF when it opens.
“That’s one of the thrilling things about watching this develop,” he says. “It’s exciting that many of the jobs in that laboratory will be filled by K-State researchers.”
DIRECTING RESEARCH: Stephen Higgs is the research director for the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University, which is already collaborating with researchers at Plum Island Animal Disease Center to keep important research moving forward during the transition from New York to K-State.
This article published in the February, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.