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K-State researcher studies epidemic waves in plants; work may hold clues on managing human epidemics, too

By Beth Bohn


Could understanding how plant diseases like soybean rust or wheat karnal bunt spread provide a better understanding of how to prevent human diseases from becoming epidemics?

A Kansas State University researcher thinks so. Karen Garrett, associate professor of plant pathology, studies epidemic waves in plants.

"As disease spreads through populations, waves of a particular level of disease can be observed moving out from the original source. Better understanding how disease spreads can help us form better strategies for managing disease," Garrett said. "Studying plant disease epidemiology is often easier than studying human diseases and can help us to understand general principles about epidemiology that also apply to human disease."

Research on epidemic waves, landscape heterogeneity and spatial scale by Garrett and others at K-State -- including Kim With, associate professor of biology, and Jim Stack, professor of plant pathology and director of K-State's Great Plains Diagnostic Network and Biosecurity Research Institute, in collaboration with researchers at Iowa State and Oregon State universities -- is being supported through competitive grants awarded by the National Science Foundation.

In K-State's plant disease ecology laboratory, Garrett and other researchers work on a wide array of projects related to the ecology of plant disease and other plant stressors, as well as general work in plant ecology. Some of the work in Garrett's lab has included pathogens shared among wheat and tallgrass prairie grasses; the effects of ecosystems on disease and of disease on ecosystems; and ecological genomics and epidemiology.

"We are studying how disease spreads through plant populations, both in order to understand basic biology and to form strategies for plant disease management to slow the spread of epidemics," Garrett said. "Our work also will apply principles of landscape ecology to better understand the spread of epidemics."

That means Garrett's research looks not only at ways to manage disease in crops, but also at plants in natural habitats like the tallgrass prairie.

"In agricultural systems, we work to improve plant disease management in the U.S. and tropical farming through resistance gene deployment and sustainable cultural practices," she said. "In natural systems, we study plant-pathogen-environment interactions in tallgrass prairie and tropical forests. Some of our projects emphasize statistical and/or bioinformatic approaches and ecological modeling."

More information on K-State's Plant Disease Ecology Lab is available at


Spring/Summer 2007

  • Updated: 8/23/16