Jack Payne: Out to Save the Palm

June 17, 2019


     If you’re in the palm business, then you know what’s happening to palms. You may even know why. You just don’t know how – and neither does anyone else.

     I think Dr. Brian Bahder of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences will be among the first to know. If he is, you’ll be the second. That’s land-grant science at work – research on relevant problems and extending that knowledge to the public. In this case, that public is you.

     I became familiar with Bahder’s work because he and his team were honored at the recent UF/IFAS Research Awards. UF/IFAS scientists published more than 1,600 scientific journal articles last year, but Bahder’s was singled out as one that really matters.

     Bahder is out to save the palm. Bahder wasn’t a palm guy when we hired him three years ago. His pitch to us was that he could bring a tool called digital PCR, most commonly used in people and veterinary medicine, and use it in plant medicine.

     Digital PCR allows for a rapid and accurate search for a certain type of DNA (for example, the DNA of the bacteria which causes lethal bronzing that kills palms) among a large sample of DNA (say, from a bunch of sabal palm trunks).

     FNGLA provided some of the funding for Bahder’s work. In addition, a couple of FNGLA members have participated directly in Bahder’s work. Member nurseries have provided samples Bahder has used to run his experiments.

     Bahder has determined, at least in theory, digital PCR can pick out the disease needle from an otherwise healthy haystack. But each test is expensive, so Bahder is refining his use of the tool so many trees can be screened for the presence of lethal bronzing at once instead of having to run separate tests on each tree.

     Early detection would be a breakthrough in the containment of the disease and allow nurseries to save trees not yet symptomatic. Early intervention can also give you a chance to stop the spread of the disease.

     Due to a full plate at home and in the lab and office, Bahder wasn’t able to attend the awards ceremony.

     Two members of his research team, Ph.D. student De-Fen Mou and his biological scientist Ericka Helmick, who were both essential in this study, were present to accept the award. So was Robin Giblin-Davis, director of the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. Giblin-Davis had a hand in hiring Bahder as part of his plan to continue the Center’s palm work after several retirements.

     Just like FNGLA did in contributing funding to Bahder’s digital PCR research, UF/IFAS sees Bahder as a great investment. It’s one which could pay dividends for decades to come.

     Bahder is balancing basic research – building the science you’ll need when he someday retires – with applied research like developing a tool to spot lethal bronzing disease today while you can still do something about it.

     He’s also got an Extension assignment, and is the lead author of the Lethal Bronzing Fact Sheet available on the FNGLA website at

     Bahder is an ornamental insect vector ecologist, so he’s coming at lethal bronzing from the bug angle. He’s running digital PCR on a collection of the bugs who are the leading suspects for carrying the pathogen from palm to palm. If he can answer the “how” behind the disease’s spread by picking the correct insect out of his PCR lineup, we can get started on another how – how to stop the insect before it stops you. •

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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