"Agriculture is an inviting target for terrorists," said Gail Wisler, a professor and chair of the plant pathology department in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS). "It’s also a ‘soft’ target because it covers an enormous amount of land under decentralized management and would have a significant impact."

She said few sights would be more demoralizing to people than crop fields ruined by disease or pestilence, or livestock herds led to mass slaughter. She said it’s critical to have the ability to quickly detect, diagnose and respond to intentional and accidental introductions of plant pests and pathogens.

Wisler, who is coordinator of a regional network that serves 12 southern states and one U.S. territory, said a $900,000 homeland security grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides initial funding for the program. The Southern Plant Diagnostic Network, which is part of the national network, includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Puerto Rico.

The national network comprises four regional networks in addition to the southern network. Universities coordinating other regional networks include Cornell University for the northeast, Michigan State University for the north central, Kansas State University for the Great Plains and University of California at Davis for the west.

"UF has a long and trusted relationship with those involved in food production, and our statewide research and Extension programs interact closely and rapidly with growers," Wisler said. "It makes good sense to capitalize on our well-equipped plant pest and diagnostic labs and staff of plant scientists with vast experience in integrated pest management."

Other UF/IFAS faculty coordinating the southern regional network include Bob McGovern, a professor of plant pathology in Gainesville; Howard Beck, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering in Gainesville; Tim Momol, an assistant professor of plant pathology at the North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy; and Pam Roberts, an assistant professor of plant pathology at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee.

Faculty in UF’s agronomy and entomology and nematology departments also are participating.

Wisler said the USDA-sponsored national network is developing a Web-based plant pest diagnostic and reporting system, which will help faculty and staff at UF and other land-grant institutions submit plant samples, digital images and detailed crop information for pest diagnosis.

She said the state and national networks also will establish a "first detector" system to help monitor the introduction of new plant pests or unusual pest outbreaks.

"First detectors are an integral part of the system and include growers, county Extension faculty, state agriculture department personnel, crop consultants, pesticide applicators and commercial chemical and seed representatives," Wisler said.

"The Southern Plant Diagnostic Network will provide training to first detectors on techniques for identifying agro-terrorist threats and procedures for reporting pest problems," Wisler said. "First detectors will have access to the Web-based diagnostic system and can report unusual pet problems, existing crop conditions and other information not normally submitted through the distance diagnostic network.

"Federal and state agencies monitor U.S. borders for plant pest introductions and watch for pest outbreaks throughout the nation. Still, new pests often are first detected by those involved in crop production and are identified by professionals at land-grant universities and state labs."

She said strengths of the system include:

o Rapid evaluation and reporting of potential bioterrorist threats.

o Quick response time for diagnosis, real-time consultation with experts.

o Web-based secure communication links among regional and national diagnostic labs.o Established links to regulatory agencies, including USDA’s APHIS (Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service) and agriculture departments in each state.

o High quality and uniformity of information associated with samples.

o High quality record keeping and reporting of pest outbreaks.

o Trained network of "first detectors."