If a disease outbreak in a field could be considered a crime scene, then the “CSI” lab for such viral suspects is on the University of Georgia campus in Tifton, Ga., where samples collected from the scene are sent and tested. The culprits are always identified.

“Every crop we put in fields is susceptible to many viruses in Georgia,” said Stephen Mullis, a research professional with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, who oversees the viral lab. “And what we do here in the lab is determine what virus is present and at what levels.”

Georgia’s hot, humid environment is good for growing many crops, virtually year-round. Unfortunately, that same weather is perfect for plant diseases, too.

Over the past decade alone, viruses have cost farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in damage or in control measures. And no disease has caused more problems than the tomato spotted wilt virus, the disease that prompted the viral lab’s creation.

TSWV hit Georgia in the mid-1980s. By the 1990s, it was at epidemic levels, particularly on peanut and tobacco plants, said Alex Csinos, a CAES plant pathologist.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Csinos said. “We had a serious outbreak of tomato spotted wilt virus in the early 1990s. Since it was a new virus and no one else was doing any kind of work on that particular virus, we decided for us to save some of our crops from the destruction from this virus we needed to start our own laboratory on site to take care of the needs and requirements of the researchers that were studying the disease.”