Ohio State Measures Tornado’s Damage to Research

By SPENCER HUNT | May 31, 2011

There are many ways to measure the tornado that ripped through Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center in September.

Time wise, the twister took four minutes to cross the Wayne County campus.

As far as size, the storm cut a path about 200 yards wide.

Cost? As much as $30 million in damage to buildings, trees and other property.

What’s harder to gauge, however, is the research affected by the storm that hit on Sept. 16.

In all, about 500 projects – many of them housed in the five large greenhouses or in labs that lost power, threatening frozen genetic material – were harmed by the tornado.

“You lose one plant and it can make a big difference,” said Bill Ravlin, the center’s associate director.

In total, $126 million in government and private-sector grants and investments went into the 500 projects, according to OARDC officials.

Then again, how can you measure the time and knowledge lost in the storm?

When the storm hit, plant geneticist Esther van der Knaap had 2,000 experimental tomato seedlings in one of five large OARDC greenhouses.

“In the end, we were able to rescue about 100 plants,” said van der Knaap, who is identifying the genes that influence tomato size and shape. “It was practically a total loss.”

Starting over takes time. For example, it took five months to cross-pollinate tomato plants to create hybrid seedlings for field testing. Those seedlings should be ready by the fall and are going to Florida, where the climate is better suited for late plantings.

“If the seedlings aren’t ready to put in (an Ohio) field by June, you lose a whole year,” she said.

David Francis, a plant breeder and geneticist, also had to grow a new generation of tomatoes for his research.

“What we really lost was a season’s worth of work,” Francis said.

He’s trying to develop a tomato that can resist a disease called bacterial spot. He’s also cross-breeding tomatoes to test the benefits of the antioxidants beta carotene and lycopene.

Francis said he was able to regrow about 75 percent of what was lost, but “to get there took some pretty heroic efforts.”

He said that will have to be enough to conduct this year’s research efforts.

After the tornado hit, Matt Kleinhenz crossed the scarred campus to find most of his research plants were in good shape.

Of course, dandelions are hardy weeds.

“They were covered in 3 inches of glass fragments,” he said.

These aren’t the dandelions cursed by suburban homeowners. Taraxacum kok-saghyz is a Russian dandelion that produces a substantial amount of rubber in its roots.

Kleinhenz has been cross-breeding dandelions to maximize their rubber output. The goal is to create a plant that can be grown commercially as a new natural source of rubber.

The work is funded in part by a $3 million Third Frontier grant.

Although most of his plants survived, Kleinhenz said the time required to salvage the dandelions and find new greenhouses to store them eliminated his ability to grow and collect seeds from two to three generations of dandelions.

Honey bee researcher Jim Tew described his loss in decades.

The tornado-flattened storage barn contained “70 years of beekeeping appliances, parts, pieces and experimental devices.”

The honey bee researcher is the core of an Ohio State program that offers scientific support and advice for Ohio beekeepers. Currently Tew is working with bee breeders who want to develop a queen bee better adapted to survive Ohio’s wet, cold winters.

The barn was a combination archive, lab and a full-feature workshop filled with power tools and drill presses.

“It’s all blown away now,” Tew said.

The essential tools he needs to do his job have been recovered or replaced, but he said some things in the archive were irreplaceable.

Though many scars the tornado left are still visible, signs of recovery are everywhere.

New saplings have replaced uprooted trees, contractors are repairing roofs and 26 temporary greenhouses have sprouted up on the west end of campus.

“Those ‘temporary’ greenhouses are going to be here for two or three years,” Ravlin said.

And researchers say things are returning to normal.

For example, the Ford Motor Co. has expressed interest in Kleinhenz’s work. On May 10, the company said it is looking at dandelion rubber for interior parts.

“There are many, many potential uses,” Kleinhenz said.

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