Why are some
exotic organisms invasive?
answer to mysteries
by Mary Ann Reese
Why do some exotic organisms arrive in the U.S. and do little harm, while others easily overrun entire native ecosystems?
"We don't know," admits UI forestry professor George Newcombe. "It would streamline our regulatory processes if we could predict which organisms are likely to be invasive and which aren't."
Can spotted knapweed be prevented from producing
seeds? That's one research quest for UI CRISSP
team above (clockwise) Mark Schwarzlaender,
Anil Raghavendra, Sanford Eigenbrode,
George Newcombe, Cort Anderson,
and Alexey Shipunov.
Imagine if scientists could find ways to interrupt the seed production of noxious weeds, or knew how to prevent New Zealand mudsnails from impacting the food chain of native trout in Idaho.
These are among the issues that Newcombe and 24 colleagues from four UI colleges are investigating through targeted projects at the UI Center for Research on Invasive Species and Small Populations (CRISSP), new in 2004.
With nearly $1 million from the Idaho Board of Education's Higher Education Research Council, CRISSP faculty are developing an integrated approach to research, meeting often to share what they are learning, and using DNA-based technology, traditional field research, experimental studies with greenhouse plants, and GIS/remote sensing technology. CRISSP already has funded more than 15 UI graduate student studies on topics ranging from developing control methods for the New Zealand mudsnail to improving declining populations of sage grouse and assessing biological controls for yellow starthistle in Hells Canyon.
This summer undergraduates get their turn: eight have joined research projects on salmon, New Zealand mudsnails, and noxious knapweeds and hawkweeds, among others.
New class; talks delivered. CRISSP faculty offered a new Invasion Biology graduate course in 2005 and 2006. In 2005, they delivered hundreds of papers and workshops around Idaho and beyond on CRISSP focus areas.
Interrupting spotted knapweed reproduction
One example of a CRISSP project involves studies of Centaurea, a genus including four of Idaho's 36 noxious weeds—diffuse knapweed, spotted knapweed, yellow starthistle, and meadow knapweed.
Role of endophytes (fungi)
One study involves endophytes, or fungi, living in these plants. "They may be the key," suggests Newcombe. Greenhouse experiments show spotted knapweed with specific endophytes can no longer produce seeds. Since an average plant can produce thousands of seeds in a season, interrupting seed production could be significant. "But we've still got a way to go before we can begin field tests," says Newcombe.
"It's very stimulating to get to work with colleagues from other disciplines, and to think beyond our own routines," adds Sanford Eigenbrode, one of four CALS faculty on CRISSP. Others are Tim Prather, Mark Schwarzlaender, and Linda Wilson.
"This is a battle we're not winning," observes Pat Takasugi, director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, on the topic of Idaho's invasive species. "It would be foolish for us not to look at biotechnology. We have to look at everything to protect our environment. CRISSP is a great way to go. Where we've lost control, I am optimistic that technology may save the day." See more about CRISSP at www.cnrhome.uidaho.edu/crissp.