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Discovery Of New Organism Could Help New England Christmas Tree Farmers Isolate Infected Plants

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Selbe B via Flickr Creative Commons
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A Connecticut scientist has helped discover a new organism that could help some of the region's Christmas trees. The scientist, Richard Cowles, also owns a Christmas tree farm.

Recently, Cowles was experimenting with ways to grow healthier fir trees. To do that, he studied unhealthy ones. When his team put diseased tissue from a nearby tree farm under a microscope, they noticed the cells looked different.

After running some tests, they concluded it was a new species of Phytophthora, a water mold which rots tree roots. Cowles got to name it.

"It’s Phytophthora abietivora," he says "And in this case, it simply means that the Phytophthora species that we isolated, eats fir trees." 

Phytophthora is a fungus-like organism. And you’ve probably heard of its effects.

It’s the same disease responsible for the 1845 Irish potato famine, although potential consequences here would be less dire.

Cowles says the discovery of this new species could help tree farmers guard against transporting infected plants. And hopefully, will make for heartier Christmas tree stock.

The research appears in the journal Plant Disease

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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