High-tech lab to study insects

The University of Saskatchewan is about to take a huge step forward into the high-tech world of insect management and research.

The U of S in Saskatoon announced last week that it has secured funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to establish a biosecure insect research and containment facility on campus.

The new facility, which will cost an estimated $1.2 million to build, will be located on the sixth floor of the university’s existing agriculture building and will allow entomologists to store, raise, observe and research insects under controlled environmental conditions.

The project is one of seven at the U of S that will share in more than $1.2 million worth of funding from the CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund.

Sean Prager, an entomolologist at the U of S, said the investment in the biosecure insect containment facility will enhance the university’s research capacity in entomology and will allow researchers and students to learn more about a wide variety of pests and how they interact with important agricultural crops.

“Ultimately, what we’re building is a really fancy series of rooms … or a specialized lab that’s designed for keeping and maintaining insects … under quarantine conditions,” Prager said.

“It allows us to keep insects that might otherwise escape into the environment and… would be potentially hazardous.”

The biosecurity component of the proposed facility is something akin to a Hollywood movie.

Authorized users will enter the facility through specialized entry system to ensure proper quarantine conditions.

Inside the facility, specially equipped rooms will be used to raise and house the insects and observe interactions with agricultural crops and weed species under controlled environmental conditions.

The space will also feature reverse ventilation systems designed to keep potential insect escapees inside, as well as specialized lighting systems that keep light-seeking insects from straying outside the research facility.

Environmental conditions inside the insect-rearing chambers and research areas — including humidity and temperature — will be computer controlled to allow for optimal conditions and 24-7 monitoring.

The high-tech lab — officially known as a plant protection containment, level 2, quarantine facility — will allow Prager and other entomology researchers including students, post-doctoral scholars and Agriculture Canada collaborators to learn more about how insects can be controlled and how the damage they cause can be reduced.

“The only similar facility between here and Winnipeg is actually at Agriculture Canada,” Prager said.

“They have a similar facility at the Saskatoon Research Centre — so just across the parking lot — but it’s restricted in that capacity so part of the reason we needed this new facility is so that we and our collaborators at Ag Canada have more space,” he added.

“This project will more than double the available space for this kind of work.”

Across Canada, entomologists, agriculturalists and horticulturalists are dealing with an increasing cast of potentially harmful insect pests.

As climate patterns change and cropping decisions evolve, new pests will emerge and become significant economic and ecological threats.

“One of the reasons that we’re building the facility… is that because we’re diversifying in what we grow and because our winters aren’t as bad as they used to be and we’re seeing the effects of climate change, it seems to me that we have a new and increasing cast of problematic insects,” Prager said.

Completion of the facility has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic but the researchers are hopeful the facility will be up and running in 2021.

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