Faculty voice:

Fred Warner: The Unseen Enemy

Dec. 9, 2015

Fred Warner is a nematologist  (one who studies nematodes, or worms) and senior academic specialist in the Department of Plant Soil And Microbial Sciences. He has been employed as a nematode diagnostician at MSU since 1986 and first enrolled as a freshman in 1975. He considers himself a Spartan for Life.

I am employed within Diagnostic Services at MSU. We diagnose plant problems so our clients are people who propagate plants: farmers; landscapers; plant nursery owners and homeowners. Our lab is typically a beehive of activity during Michigan’s growing season and this year has been our busiest to date since we formed in 1999 as we have received over 8000 samples. Prior to 1999, the three laboratories that diagnosed pathogens and pests of plants on campus, the Arthropod/Insect Diagnostic Lab, Nematode Diagnostic Service Lab and the Plant Disease Clinic, operated independently. Project GREEEN made integration of the labs possible.  

Insects are regarded as pests of plants whereas; many species of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, viruses and some other organisms cause diseases. I specifically work with nematodes, which are worms. Nematodes play many important roles but are most recognized for being parasites of animals, including humans, and plants. They are the most numerous animals on our planet and as a reference a shovel full of soil can contain up to one million or more nematodes. Of the greater than 8000 samples received in our lab this year, roughly 6500 of them were submitted for nematode analyses. The fun almost never seems to end for Angie Tenney, another nematologist employed in Diagnostic Services, and me.

Nematodes are found anywhere there is water and soil is a great habitat for many species. The majority of nematodes that occur in soil are beneficial and feed on bacteria, fungi and other microscopic animals. However, my primary focus is the ones that cause diseases of plants, the plant-parasitic nematodes. I titled this information piece, “The Unseen Enemy” because all plant-parasitic nematodes are microscopic, the longest we have in Michigan measures about 6 mm in length (1/4 inch). Because of their microscopic nature, I truly believe their impacts are often ignored.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization named 2015 the “International Year of Soils.” As a way to celebrate this distinction, MSU AgBioResearch published two editions of their Futures magazine (vol. 33, nos 1 & 2) devoted to researchers who work in agriculture which would be impossible without soil. Although I thought it was a great publication and very informative, on a personal note, I was disappointed no individual mentioned our lab and the role we play in many projects involving soil. I could take some solace in the fact nematodes were highlighted by a couple of researchers, one being my former major professor, George Bird.

I worry about my discipline. Because the majority of nematodes species are microscopic and there are fewer and fewer people conducting applied nematode research, I believe they may go from the “unseen” to the “forgotten” enemies. This would be tragic because in many crops, plant-parasitic nematodes are major yield limiting factors and unmanaged infestations can result in tremendous economic losses. For instance, it is estimated the soybean cyst nematode, which is the most important pathogen of soybean where it exists, causes in excess of slightly more than two billion dollars of losses annually worldwide.      

It is obvious members of the United Nations certainly recognize the importance of soil as we attempt to feed an every growing global population. Some conventional farming practices have contributed to depleted soils or “unhealthy” soils. When evaluated, these “unhealthy” soils often have lower abundances and number of species of beneficial organisms which include nematodes. So, if the science of nematology continues to whither, the roles of both the bad and good nematodes will be less understood and this is undesirable as we move toward a desire for a better understanding of soil health. Good biological diversity is necessary for healthy, sustainable soils.

I often tell students on campus that when you work with parasitic worms you scare people so I’m kept in my lab/office a great percentage of the time. All joking aside, this is primarily due to the fact I spend 20-40 hours per week at the microscope. If, after reading this, you feel you want to learn more about nematodes, feel free to visit me in 117 CIPS. However, be prepared for some long answers if you ask me about nematodes because I don’t get out much.