U.S. government and university officials say they are pleased with the first simulation of a network designed to detect a bioterrorism attack on U.S. crops. But they say work will continue to have the system fully operational by next spring.

Officials with the National Plant Diagnostic Network conducted the first of many scheduled simulations designed to demonstrate the system's capabilities and to practice the steps required in the event of a bioterrorist attack on U.S. plants, such as farm crops or landscape plants.

"We have a good sense of realistic scenarios that this network might encounter," says Kitty Cardwell, NPDN program leader. "We will use what we learn from these simulations to further strengthen the systems we've developed."

USDA and the Cooperative State Research, Extension and Education Service established NPDN in 2002 as part of the nation's homeland security efforts. The network will help detect pests and pathogens that may be introduced maliciously or unintentionally into the nation's agriculture industry.

NPDN also expedites pest or pathogen identification, and provides reporting systems to aid a rapid response to any plant problem.

"NPDN was built from an existing system used for normal growing season problems, it's now an essential part of homeland security to protect against bioterrorism," says Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

The system was tested in Nebraska by simulating the detection of exotic soybean rust. A rural Extension agent then brought a photograph of the disease — representing an actual sample — to the University of Nebraska's NPDN lab.

After initial identification and diagnosis, the sample then continued through the diagnostic network, from the triage lab in Nebraska to the expert lab at Kansas State University, then to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service lab in Beltsville, Md., for final confirmation.

"We were pleased by the excellent coordination and communication that occurred between the federal and state agencies, including the land-grant universities, USDA offices in each state, APHIS and NPDN," says Carla Thomas, who coordinated the scenario and is assistant director of the western region.

During the simulation, the NPDN system notified each region of the suspected disease and where it was located.  Once a positive identification was made, the NPDN communication plan began and each region was notified of the final diagnosis.

The entire process took less than 36 hours to complete, from initial discovery to the completion of the communication plan.

NPDN officials say they plan to continue simulations and testing in order to be fully operational by spring 2004.  Until that time, the network and its systems will be frequently updated and implemented across the nation.

The National Plant Diagnostic Network is divided into five regions, each with a land-grant university serving as a regional center. These regional centers, through the Cooperative Extension Service, have close interaction with farmers and are often the first to know of any suspected problems.  Once notified, the regional center can utilize its staff of plant scientists and diagnostic labs to identify the pest or pathogen and suggest an adequate treatment.

Diagnostic labs in all 50 states are participating in NPDN (http://www.npdn.org) and are coordinated, regionally at the following locations:

Kansas State University, USDA