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A new national plant protection laboratory for the safe study of particularly harmful pests and pathogens

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Insects, fungi or nematodes that pose a threat to our trees and plants can now be studied in Switzerland more safely than ever before, thanks to the new Swiss Plant Protection Laboratory at the Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). The new facility in Birmensdorf has been officially opened on 20 October 2014 by Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann.

The WSL, which is responsible for the diagnostic of forest pests and pathogens for the Swiss plant protection service, built the Security Level 3 laboratory together with the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG).

During the ceremony for the inauguration of the new biosafety laboratory, Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann stressed that Switzerland urgently needed such a facility. From now on, plant pests and diseases can be safely studied in Birmensdorf at the required biosafety level. The new laboratory constructed largely out of Swiss timber, in which quarantine organisms of Risk Group 3 will also be studied, is the last in a series of special facilities built by the federal government to study particularly harmful pathogens. So far, federal biosafety laboratories were present in Spiez for human pathogens and at the Institute of Virology and Immunology in Mittelhäusern for animal pathogens.

Safety is the top priority

At the laboratory's inauguration, WSL Director Konrad Steffen emphasized that the new laboratory facility will enable researchers to offer the federal and cantonal plant protection services added support in their efforts to develop effective measures for management of invasive plant pathogens and pests. The new special facility offers separate areas where several organisms in the risk groups 1 to 3 can be studied simultaneously, reference cultures can be grown, and pests and infected plants can be safely stored. Moreover, test plants cultivated in the neighbouring greenhouse, which is made of unbreakable glass and meets the same safety requirements as the laboratory itself, will enable scientists to study biology and impact of dangerous pests under controlled conditions and to evaluate appropriate control measures.

To meet stringent biosafety standards the new plant protection facility has been equipped with a number of safety features. For instance, the escape of any harmful organisms is prevented by maintaining negative air pressure in the Safety Level 3 laboratories, filtering the extracted air, installing two air locks at the laboratory and greenhouse’s entrances and autoclaving any waste material and used water.

Invasive species are on the increase

More and more, insects, fungi, bacteria and nematodes are finding their way into Switzerland as a result of increasing global trade, human mobility and also climate warming. Several of these organisms pose a threat to Switzerland's trees and plants in forests, landscapes and urban areas. Individual species may even damage entire ecosystems and adversely affect forest management, agriculture and food production.

Many of these alien organisms originate from warmer regions, but can now survive and become established in Switzerland because of global warming. For example, the number of insect species that can damage our native trees and shrubs has risen exponentially over the last 20 years. One current example of a highly dangerous quarantine organism is the Asian longhorned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis), which arrived in Switzerland in wood packaging material and can infest a broad range of deciduous tree species. So far, the beetle has been found only in few locations, and extensive efforts are being made to eradicate it and prevent its establishment in Switzerland.

New fungal diseases have also increasingly been introduced to Switzerland. Their microscopic spores enable them to spread so fast that there is no effective way of stopping them. Ash dieback is one such example. Furthermore, nematodes that reached Europe in wood packaging material could also end up endangering various pine species in Switzerland within the next few years.

25 October: Open Laboratory Day at the WSL

On 25 October 2014, the public is cordially invited to visit the facility between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. and, amongst other things, witness the first ever public demonstration of how the Swiss Plant Protection Service (SPPS) uses sniffer dogs to find the Asian longhorned beetle. Visitors will also have the opportunity to:

  • Visit the biosafety laboratory
  • See the technology used there
  • Walk through the experimental garden and WSL area
  • Watch sniffer dogs tracking down pests
  • Collect fascinating, in-depth information from 15 stands
  • Keep their kids happy with a special children's programme
  • Purchase reasonably priced food and refreshments in WSL's canteen.

The WSL built its new plant protection laboratory together with the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG), which together run the Swiss Plant Protection Service (SPPS). The prime objective of plant protection measures is to prevent the arrival and spread of particularly harmful pests and diseases affecting plants and plant products. For example, the SPPS inspects the wood packaging of granite imported for road building and plants imported by nurseries and garden centres.

Around 97% of the 170 m3 of wood used to construct the facility originate from Swiss forests. The laboratory building was designed for maximal energy-efficiency and will shortly be subjected to extensive testing and validation. Only then can any actual laboratory work begin. The facility's infrastructure will not only be used by WSL to identify and study particularly harmful organisms, but will also be available for other Swiss researchers as well as for international partners. The new plant protection laboratory costs approximately 15 million francs, with 60% of this total being met by the WSL and ETH Board and the FOEG and FOAG contributing the remaining 40%. The facility was designed and built by the architects of Burckhardt + Partner.