UNL Plant Pathologist's Book Offers Tales of Scientific Discovery
Does a reader need to be scientist — specifically, a plant pathologist — to appreciate a book about the history of discovering and treating plant diseases?
Not if the reader has an appreciation of history, science, and the broader lessons they have to offer.
“The Bacterium of Many Colors” by Bob Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center, offers just such an opportunity to explore many of the significant developments in plant diseases. The book is published by APS Press of the American Phytopathological Society.
The APS Press catalog says Harveson’s book “… imparts lessons of the past through a fascinating collection of stories behind plant pathogen and disease discoveries, as well as the important lessons plant pathologists learned while researching them.”
“This book was written for a diverse audience that includes historically minded plant pathologists, agricultural and biological science students, and enthusiasts.”
The book’s 23 chapters address various diseases, some common and some rare, and are tied together by the thread of what larger lesson was imparted to society based on the disease research. Chapters, which are more fully listed here, include:
- The Mysterious Lives of Those Elusive Gram-Positive Nebraska Natives
- The Deadly Debacle from Dixie
- On a Slow Boat from China: Exotic Introductions from the Orient
- The New England Yankee Who Saved the South
- The Birds and the Bees in Mycology: The Complicated Sex Lives of Rust Fungi
The 288-page book has 290 images and is available in paperback ($155 for non-society members, $139.50 for members through May 31) and in Kindle ($65). In addition to the plant disease stories, there are biological profiles.
The book grew out of Harveson’s interest in history. A course assignment during graduate school required him to choose a plant disease and explain its social significance. He chose Stewart’s wilt of corn, a disease that resulted in the first plant disease forecasting system. Scientists discovered that Stewart’s Wilt, first found in New York State, was transmitted by flea beetles. To forecast the severity of a growing-season outbreak, the researchers used the mean temperatures of December, January and February, which corresponded with flea beetle winter survival. This is one of the stories featured in Harveson’s book.
“I had fun doing it, and thought to myself it would be fun to look at other diseases and explain how they’ve affected our lives,” he said.
Another chapter explains the origin of breeding crops for disease resistance. In the early 20th century, plant breeders were faced with several diseases in cotton, watermelon and cowpeas. The breeders responded by exposing plants to the diseases on purpose. Those that survived were crossed with other lines, and the progeny possessed improved resistance to the diseases. Essentially the same techniques developed in different states in response to different diseases.
Harveson said the book is not dense with scientific jargon and was written for audiences at a college or advanced high-school level.
“It’s more history than science, I guess, but it’s a combination of both,” he said.
The book was several years in the making. Harveson submitted the idea in the fall of 2010 and started writing in the winter of 2011, researching and writing during his annual leave and on weekends while carrying out his plant pathology duties at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center. The book was published in May 2015.
“The Bacterium of Many Colors” is his first book. He has co-authored a series of compendia related to crop diseases, was lead editor and wrote several chapters in a sugarbeet compendium and a newer sunflower compendium. He also has written chapters on plant disease in dry bean and sugarbeet production guides. Harveson now serves on the APS Press editorial board.
A copy of the book is available in the Panhandle REC’s D.A. Murphy Memorial Library in Scottsbluff. It's open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.