x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sharjah lab at the front line of biosecurity

Sharjah lab leads way in preventing soil and seed infections.

A seed lab in Sharjah is attacking food-borne illnesses at their roots.
A seed lab in Sharjah is attacking food-borne illnesses at their roots.

SHARJAH // Scientists at a seed and soil laboratory in Sharjah are attacking plant diseases at their roots.

Inaugurated in February, the Plant Health Laboratory at the Ministry of Environment and Water is helping farmers to improve their crops with systems to kill parasites that could infect the roots of plants.

A team of four specialists at the lab is seeking to increase biosecurity and food safety in the UAE.

"It is vital to protect our agriculture from diseases, locally and from abroad, because they can be truly destructive to our plants," said Dr Khader Sobhy Ibrahim Abufool, the unit's plant pathology specialist.

The first of its kind in the UAE, the lab started its work last October by importing different seeds, plants and soil from abroad for testing.

Soil samples from local farms and government departments are also sent to the lab to be diagnosed for disease-causing agents.

The nematology section of the lab is used for detecting worms in grass, sand and soil. Parasitic nematodes, or worms, found in soil can infect the plant's roots by penetrating them with stiff, needle-like organs called stylets.

"They can be very dangerous because they push the stylet into plant cells and inject a liquid containing enzymes, which prevents nutrients [getting] from the soil to the plant," Dr Abufool said. "Root-knot nematodes are guaranteed pests, as well as most insects that come through plants and flowers, such as whiteflies and leaf miners."

Any soil sample from abroad containing a disease that cannot be cured by the lab, or contains any dangerous worms, is sent back.

Sand testing takes 10 minutes while potted soil require 40 minutes. Non-potted soil tests take at least an hour. A spot-check instrument with which an infection can be noticed in only 30 seconds is also used in the lab.

The division at the lab that tests imported seeds contains hundreds of seeds duplicated in a germinator to avoid contamination.

From cucumbers, melons, onions and okra to tomatoes, flowers and Rhodes grass, the seeds are carefully covered to keep their moisture.

"We inspect the seeds' germination, purity and pests," said Dr Abufool. "If there is a problem with any seed, we can see it directly through the covers as it starts moulding."

After being tested, the seeds are sent to private agricultural companies and farms across the country.

If a disease is detected in a soil sample from local farms it is taken into the plant pathology lab where Dr Nida Fadel Rasheed, the unit's agricultural engineer, isolates fungi - organisms that can kill plant cells before absorbing their nutrients.

The seeds are then placed in an incubator for a period of between three days and a week to identify the type of fungus and whether or not it can cause diseases.

The lab has succeeded in greatly reducing the incidence of seed and soil disease in the country, Dr Rasheed said.

Aisha Amiri, the acting director of the ministry's laboratories department, said: "It is the first defence for agriculture in the UAE and it can protect biosecurity by preventing any guaranteed pests from entering the country."

Rapid diagnostics will help to increase the standards of food safety and biosecurity in the UAE by drawing effective plans for the control, prevention and treatment of the source of food, the scientists said.

"We need to guarantee healthy food for everyone in the UAE because it really is the basic need," Dr Rasheed said.

cmalek@thenational.ae