April 2019 | Canadian Food Inspection Agency | by Jennifer Platts-Fanning, Shara Cody
One misty Island morning, as I climbed into a cab on my way to work, the driver asked where I was going. I responded in the Island way, simply, “the big white building with the greenhouses.” Immediately he exclaimed, “Oh, the plant hospital!” to which I replied smiling, “It does look like a hospital, but we only diagnose and we don’t treat the plants.” The work performed in the incredible building has always been a topic of rumour around our little town.
Built in 1996, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Charlottetown Laboratory in Prince Edward Island is the only plant health lab in the region. It stands out among all the other buildings in the city for its unique and fascinating structure. With a peaked glass roof, shining white exterior and large attached greenhouse surrounded by a lush green landscape right in the capital city, all that’s needed for directions is to say you’re heading to the big white and glass building or, as some may have named it, “the plant hospital”.
Inside the walls of the Charlottetown Laboratory, plant samples arrive for “a check-up,” which includes testing for various pathogens (disease-causing agents) like viruses, bacteria, and fungi to safeguard the health of Canadian crops. Although they pose no health hazard for humans, these pathogens could cause significant damage to our agricultural crops and devastating economic losses. A clean bill of health for a plant sample provides the basis for crop certification for use in Canada and a passport to export to other countries. The Charlottetown Laboratory is the centre of expertise for potato diagnostic testing in Canada. Therefore, most of our work involves testing potatoes, but we also test other crops, such as corn and pulses (for example, chickpeas and lentils). Alongside this testing, researchers work on developing new and innovative testing methods.
As you walk down the main hall of the lab, you can see the sun shining through the glass roof. On either side of the main hallway are lab spaces equipped with state-of-the-art scientific equipment, such as robotics and DNA and RNA sequencing equipment for testing and analysis, as well as microscopes and other more familiar equipment. What makes this lab different from other plant labs are the multiple “containment zones” that are certified to “Plant Pest Containment Level 2”. This means that our facility design, the operational procedures, and specialized equipment are suitable to contain pathogens and prevent them from infecting other parts of the lab and plants elsewhere. Some of the containment zones are designated for performing tests or handling samples while others, such as the greenhouse, are for growing plants. Some containment areas are specialized to test high volumes of soil, and others have contained growth spaces that use grow lights and watering systems to mimic greenhouse conditions while providing enhanced security and containment.
The greenhouse is on the sunny south side of the building. It’s a “Plant Pest Containment Level 2” zone with four different compartments inside that allow scientists to separate plants and pathogens for testing and research. A computer system controls all of the environmental conditions needed to grow plants, such as temperature, humidity and light. The building is expanding its indoor growth space: two new containment areas are being built for growing and testing plant material.
To support these containment areas, the facility boasts numerous autoclaves and a top-notch bio-waste system to decontaminate waste and ensure pathogens are destroyed when the testing is complete. The bio-waste system treats the water used in the labs and containment areas. All of the drains go to a tank that, like a huge pressure cooker, brings the water up to 132 degrees Celsius and cooks it for a certain amount of time based on the water volume. Once sterilized, the waste water goes through a series of steps and tanks to cool it off before it returns to the municipal water system. A recent renovation to the system has made the process into a “green” initiative by exchanging heat from treated hot water to incoming waste water, re-using the energy. This helps cool the treated water before it’s released and pre-heat the incoming water without additional energy!
Walking into the Charlottetown Laboratory building, filled with natural light each day, to help protect Canadian crops from pests is a very rewarding job. And thinking of it as “the plant hospital” is heartwarming indeed.