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Faculty Focus

Five Questions for Tom Burr

Tom BurrDr. Tom Burr completed graduate research in Plant Pathology at University of California, Berkeley in 1977, prior to coming to Cornell University.  He joined the Department of Plant Pathology as an assistant professor on the Cornell, Geneva campus in 1977.  He became chair of the department in 2003 and served as director of NYS Agricultural Experiment Station from 2005-2015.  Throughout his career, Burr has been involved in studying bacterial pathogens of plants and working with agricultural industries on strategies to manage diseases caused by them.

What inspired you to work with grapes?
I was very interested in microbiology as an undergrad and that led to seeking a degree in Plant Pathology where I could study microorganisms that cause diseases of plants and are of concern to farmers.  After receiving my B.S. I worked as a technician in Plant Pathology for a year at the University of Arizona experiment station in Mesa, Arizona on research that mostly involved diseases of potato, sugar beets and cotton.  I truly enjoyed being able to study the biology and infection processes of pathogens and at the same time collaborate with farmers on disease management.

How have the research targets of your field changed since the beginning of your career?
Many of the research targets (pathogens and diseases) remain of critical importance to the industry but the technologies used to study them continue to evolve at a rapid pace.  Chemicals for controlling diseases have improved and in many cases, particularly for diseases caused by fungi, are the mainstay for disease control.  New technologies are making it possible for development of a more in-depth understanding of pathogen biology in vineyards, of infection processes and how pathogens might be managed through employment of disease resistance, biological control and manipulation of the plant and soil environments.  Technologies used to edit plant genomes will be increasingly important for enhancing plant disease resistance as well as other genetically-determined quality traits. An example of research in my lab has been the development of a much improved and highly sensitive method for detecting the crown gall pathogen, Agrobacterium vitis, in grapevines.  The method is based on detection of a gene required for crown gall infection and has improved our knowledge concerning the distribution of the pathogen in vines and the environment.  We now know that the bacterium is randomly distributed internally in cultivated grapevines as well as in wild grapevines.  Utilizing the method also makes it possible to critically assess the effectiveness of producing vines free of A. vitis as well as how environmental sources of the pathogen may contribute to infection of vines. (Editor's note: See "Research in Plain English" AC #24 and "Grapes 101" AC #21 for more information on A. vitis detection)

In addition, a changing climate is and will continue to impact the occurrence of grape diseases.  Dramatic temperature swings during winter months increase the likelihood of freeze injury to vines and therefore the onset of crown gall.  Another example is Pierces disease which continues to move northward as the climate warms.  The pathogen, Xylella fastidiosa, has been known in the NYC area and in New Jersey causing diseases of ornamental trees for years, however strains of X. fastidiosa that infect grapes and cause Pierces disease have not yet been detected in New York.  Because survival of this pathogen is limited to the grape xylem and to leaf hopper vectors, it is likely that it has been introduced in New York several times, especially along with grape material from regions that have the disease.  Critical questions remain as to how changing climate will affect vine susceptibility in New York and persistence of the pathogen in vines.

What projects are going on in your lab right now?
We are aiming to finish up some of the projects this year before I retire.  We have concluded projects on Pierces disease but still have a few more to complete on crown gall.  One of those involves understanding the mechanism by which a biological control for grape crown gall inhibits infection on vines and how it can be developed into a commercially viable product.  It is most likely that the projects will not all be completed by the end of the year and I will keep some going to a limited extent into retirement.  I also plan to assist colleagues that are interested in continuing research projects from my laboratory by providing materials and advice.

Do you have a personal example or story with a local industry member that has been especially meaningful for your career?
I have been fortunate to have worked with members of the New York grape and wine industry since starting at Cornell in 1977.  One of the first phone calls I received in Geneva was from Dr. Konstantin Frank who asked me to visit his vineyards because some of the vines were showing crown gall disease.  I remember it was a Saturday morning and my son’s birthday, so we decided to meet on Monday and had an excellent visit that followed with more discussions and collaborations with generations of the Frank family.   There are so many influential leaders in the wine and juice industries that I have had the pleasure to work with and learn from.  Their hard work, persistence and dedication to the industry and to producing quality products have made today’s New York wine and juices world-class.  I have served on the board of the NY Wine & Grape Foundation for the past 12 years and have observed firsthand how the leadership of that board has been instrumental in encouraging and fostering the industry’s diversity, unity and successes across New York.  The impacts that our vineyards and wineries have on the local tourist industry and state economy are truly amazing.  I am very pleased to have been able to play a small part in that growth. 

Last issue we featured industry views on a proposed Research and Development Program.  How do you see this Program fitting into the NY grape and wine industry?
There is no question that research and extension will continue to be extremely important for the continued growth and prosperity of the New York wine and juice industries.  Like most states in the US, the percentage of the research bill paid by the state is declining as the costs of operations increase.  We have been fortunate that New York state has continued to fund the NY Wine & Grape Foundation and that a portion of that funding is targeted for research.  That funding must also be matched with private dollars that largely comes from grape and wine industry members.  Certain leaders in the industries have also initiated endowments for grape and wine research, and income from those endowments also provides reliable funding for research.

The sources of funds mentioned above are much appreciated but are not sufficient in themselves to maintain world-class research and extension programs in New York.  A marketing order administered by NY State and overseen by an industry board would provide a mechanism whereby all industry members would contribute funding for research in a fair manner.  It would also demonstrate to state leaders that the New York industry broadly is willing to have a stake in research and the future well-being of the industry.  Like the other funding sources mentioned above, it will not provide all of the financial support required for research but would focus on critical questions most important to industry members.  Especially while serving as director of NYSAES, I had the opportunity to interact with the lead committees from different fruit and vegetable marketing orders and found them to be highly productive and to provide excellent ways to work with faculty and staff to generate information that benefits the industries across the state.