Rice researcher Jan Leach vividly recalls the day in 2008 when federal officials declared Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae – bacteria she has studied for three decades – as a “select agent” with potential for use in bioterrorism.
“I cried,” said Leach, a Colorado State University Distinguished Professor of plant pathology.
Leach knew the designation would mean onerous regulations for her laboratory and greenhouse as she works to understand and strengthen rice resistance to Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae, which causes bacterial blight disease and devastating crop losses across Asia.
In complying, Leach unwittingly has gained new expertise in managing dual-use research, meaning studies whose findings could greatly improve human well-being, yet in the wrong hands could be used for biowarfare or bioterrorism.
Leach’s insights recently led to her appointment as a new member of the high-profile National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, invited Leach to join the board; her two-year term began in August.
The 25-member federal advisory board, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is composed of leaders in a range of scientific disciplines. The board advises federal agencies about the complexities of dual-use research, and suggests guidelines to protect public health and national security without hindering scientific progress.
“I’m kind of a rosy person, so I don’t like to think about terrorists. But I don’t want to see science shut down because of irrational people,” said Leach, who works in the CSU Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management.
It’s critical that scientists are involved in policy discussions, she said, because they can provide fact-based views of risks and benefits of dual-use research. This year, dual-use research has been a red-hot topic among life scientists, sparked by debate over the publication of studies involving the avian H5N1 influenza virus.
“What’s important is to have rational scientists making decisions, rather than people who don’t have the full view of the science involved,” Leach said. “Many of these discussions involve risk-benefit analysis. ‘What’s the balance? If we block research because of the potential for evil, do we block our ability to help people?’”
Leach is a foremost expert in rice genomics and the interactions between plants and pathogens at the molecular level. As a University Distinguished Professor, she is among a select group of world-class CSU professors known for outstanding scholarship and achievement.
She also is a past president of the American Phytopathological Society, a scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant diseases, and is current chair of the society’s Public Policy Board, among other prominent roles.
“Dr. Leach’s appointment to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is a great testament to her research expertise and her dedication to science as a path for improving food security and quality of life for people around the world,” said Craig Beyrouty, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Her public-policy insights are an important contribution.”
Leach has worked extensively with Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae, a bacterial pathogen that causes rice blight disease. The disease often wipes out between 20 percent and 50 percent of rice crops raised by farmers in Asia.
That’s often disastrous because rice is the most important food crop in the developing world and the staple food for more than 3 billion people – about half the world’s population, according to the International Rice Research Institute. It is grown by subsistence farmers across Asia.
Leach, who employs new genomics technologies and collaborates closely with colleagues in Asia, seeks to determine how rice resistance to Xanthomonas oryzae can be strengthened and sustained. The U.S. Department of Agriculture listed the pathogen as a potential agent of bioterrorism because of ramifications for food security if it were mishandled.
The pathogen cannot spread in Colorado because of the state’s dry climate, cold winters, and because rice, the host plant, is not present. Even so, Leach follows strict regulations in her laboratory and greenhouse: the tracking of every single rice plant used in experiments; sealed and guarded work spaces; complex decontamination procedures; regular inspections; even screening and fingerprinting of lab workers by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“This bacteria is an old friend. I’ve worked with it for 30 years. So when it was designated as a select agent, I stepped back and said, ‘What do we need to do?’” Leach said. “As scientists, we are obligated to look at the disease that Xanthomonas oryzae causes in rice and to solve this problem. It’s a moral obligation. In order to keep feeding people, we need a more stable resistance.
“Every time I travel in Asia and I see how important rice is to people, and how devastating it is when a family loses a crop to disease, I realize our research has an important outcome. I always come back with a new amount of energy.”