INSECT LAB EXPANDS POSSIBILITIES
BY MADELEINE BAERG • PHOTO COURTESY OF BERNICE ROMERO
With $1.1 million in industry and government funding, the University of Saskatchewan will soon be home to a brand new, high-tech, bio-secure insect research facility.
Set to open in early 2023, the University of Saskatchewan Insect Research Facility (USIRF) will be the only one of its kind at a western Canadian university. Its launch is a major step forward for agricultural research, said Sean Prager, an entomologist at the USask College of Agriculture and Bioresources and USIRF’s research lead.
“For the farmer who asks where their check-off goes and what it does for them, this is the answer. This facility is hopefully a real and long-term boon to farmers,” said Prager.
While it may not look so different from the much smaller facility it will replace, it is the highly regulated components of the USIRF lab that make the facility special. “Basically, it looks like a bunch of rooms with growth chambers. Those aren’t the parts that are particularly important. It’s what’s under the hood that makes the difference,” said Prager.
USIRF will be built to rigorous standards laid out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that govern everything from air handling and venting to water filtration and even demand specific building materials for floors and countertops. These features allow the CFIA to give researchers approval to work on pests and pathogens they haven’t until now been allowed to study at USask.
“There is a whole range of things that could pose a threat if they were to get out: spotted wing drosophila, swede midge, viruses collected from other places, spotted lantern flies—anything where the risk of causing damage if they escaped is very high,” said Prager. “You’re only allowed to work on pests and pathogens like that if you have this level of security in the lab. Until now, research on those pests and diseases in Western Canada was only possible at government labs.”
The Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) will carry nearly half the initial cost. The federal government, USask and several Saskatchewan crop commissions will finance the remainder.
“All the funding decisions the [WGRF] board makes are from the lens of: will this benefit farmers? In this case, the board decided, yes, we could see the potential benefit to farmers now and down the road as insect populations change, whether from climate change or the natural evolution of pests,” said Garth Patterson, WGRF executive director.
USIRF is expected to produce results almost immediately. The facility’s large laboratory space means it can host concurrent experiments and projects by many students and researchers.
“The projects we couldn’t do before because we didn’t have capacity, those you’ll see right away, so work on economic thresholds, different insecticide trials and susceptibility trials,” said Prager. “The number of staff and students will be highly variable, but it will be many times what was possible previously.”
The facility will also allow researchers to conduct evaluations on pests and pathogens that aren’t yet present on the Prairies or aren’t yet major problems. Working alongside plant breeders, researchers at USIRF will hopefully help develop new resistant cultivars to existing and emergent pests.
“This facility could make a really important difference to getting ahead of problems before they begin,” said Prager.