SOCORRO, N.M. (KRQE) – A scientific breakthrough made in New Mexico could soon change the way crops are grown across the country, including one of the state’s most famous exports.
“This is a chile leaf that’s sick,” Dr. Siv Watkins said, holding out a plated sample of two leaves.
“You can see where it’s necrotic and very, obviously dead, here,” said Watkins. “The wrinkly stuff all over it is the organism that made it sick.”
Dr. Watkins is an associate professor of biology at New Mexico Tech in Socorro.
“For someone who loves plants so much, we spend a lot of time killing them,” she said.
She and her students may have sealed the fate for these young chile plants, but it is all in the name of science.
“Once we’ve isolated the organism that makes it sick, we’re able to manipulate it and figure out how to kill it,” explained Dr. Watkins.
That is exactly what they did.
“If there’s something causing a disease, there is something there to balance it out and stop that disease from happening, so what we do is find the disease and we find the guy who’s balancing it out, as well. That way we can cure the disease,” Watkins said.
She holds up another plated sample of what appears to be a furry fungus.
“This is the cure,” said Dr. Watkins. “We can grow up this organism, spray it onto the plant and then this guy will kill this guy.”
Watkins is referring to one of the organisms that causes powdery mildew. It is always in the soil, but she says a slight change in the environment can create disease.
“So it’s a problem for everybody whether they realize it or not,” said Dr. Watkins.
She says there are effective treatments for other crops, but for plants like chile, they all involve harsh chemicals. It’s what makes Watkins’ breakthrough one of a kind.
“This organism has a distinct advantage over those methods because it doesn’t harm the plant, it has no effect on human beings,” explained Dr. Watkins.
Now, she is effectively treating diseased plants, even preventing powdery mildew, altogether, by putting her cure in the soil.
While Dr. Watkins has already seen success with chile, the end goal is to use her cure to treat a similar plant on a large scale — medical cannabis.
“When you walk into a room where the plants are infected with powdery mildew, you can tell straight away. They look sad. If the infection has progressed too far, they look furry, they look moldy,” said Watkins. “If you have a sick plant, it’s not going to be producing those compounds that are helping people in an effective way.”
What’s more, she says commercial medical cannabis growers take a hit.
“You’re not going to make as much money off of it,” said Dr. Watkins.
As the medical marijuana industry becomes more prevalent and producers look to grow more product, Watkins expects they will see more cases of powdery mildew and need more effective ways of treating it. Yet, she says this small project revolving around this modern medicine is part of a larger effort to determine what affects the health of cannabis plants.
Eventually, she hopes to use her research to assure growers can produce healthier, bigger, more robust medical marijuana.
Dr. Watkins and New Mexico Tech are currently in the process of obtaining a patent for what she describes as “antibiotics for powdery mildew.”
Her plan is to contribute a portion of the money made to a nonprofit that helps treat substance abuse.
“What we want to do is feed back into the community in rural New Mexico, places like Soccoro, which I love,” said Dr. Watkins.