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Cost-effective method to measure seedling stress (11/01)

By Ken Sitter Steve Colombo built a better mousetrap and is waiting for the world to beat a path to his door, or rather the Ontario Forest Research Institute's door in Sault Ste. Marie.

By Ken Sitter

Steve Colombo built a better mousetrap and is waiting for the world to beat a path to his door, or rather the Ontario Forest Research Institute's door in Sault Ste. Marie.

Colombo's better mousetrap is a stress induced volatile emission (SIVE) pump, initially developed to assess stress in forest tree seedlings, but with possible uses in the agriculture, horticulture and food industries.

The institute has received a U.S. patent on the process, not the equipment, says Colombo, a research scientist who developed the chemical process with former institute scientist Colin Templeton, now with the British Columbia Ministry of Forests.

The portable gas analysis system uses equipment originally developed to analyse and measure possibly harmful gases in industrial workplaces, Colombo explains. The new process allows foresters and tree-planting contractors in the field to easily and quickly check the health of seedlings before planting.

Current testing techniques involving a gas chromatograph, an expensive and complicated piece of equipment, take at least 24 hours for initial results, in part because seedling stock must be taken to a laboratory.

Stressed seedlings, as well as fruits, vegetables, flowers and other plants produce ethanol and acetaldehyde, he says. A hand-held vacuum pump draws an air sample from a seedling into a glass tube where it is mixed with a blue-coloured chemically reactive substance in a disposable tube. The gases produced by the seedlings react with the contents of the tube to turn orange. The degree of colour change indicates how much stress the plant is under.

"The vital application of the tool is that it's something you can have on site," he says. Using the inexpensive pump doesn't require much training, and the results are quick, allowing decisions to be made on the spot. Contractors can be assured of quality stock before planting and can send workers home without waiting for test results if the stock is in poor condition.

The SIVE pump should result in some improvement in the forestry industry's efficiency, but "there is not the volume of tree seedlings shipped in Northern Ontario for it to be used a lot," he says. As well, the establishment of a seedling testing laboratory in Thunder Bay in 1993 has reduced the number of problems in seedling stock.

But there is significant potential elsewhere in the industry and in other industries, Columbo says.

"I honestly think this thing has tremendous commercial possibilities," he says, citing grocery stores, flower shops, producers, shippers and distribution centres as possible users.

"There's just a huge number of potential users out there."

Such pumps, used in industrial safety applications, typically sell for about $350, and the gas tubes for $10 each.

"If you found one bad shipment , you've paid for that device four or five times over."

A Japanese manufacturer of the hand-held vacuum pumps has expressed interest in the project, as has one large American-based forestry company, but Colombo and the institute are still waiting for the knock on the door.

"We'd like someone to come to us and kick-start the whole operation," says the scientist, who has no financial interest in the process, since the patents are owned by the province.

"There's been interest, but nobody's beating down our door."

Despite his hopes for the SIVE pump, Colombo does not see it as the apex of his 20 years' work at the institute. At least, not until it proves itself useful to people.

"I've done other things in my research that have made a big difference in forestry in the province," says Colombo, who has done most of his research on reforestation and improving the quality of seedlings being produced.

He continues to work on improving seedlings with the Thunder Bay laboratory and has branched into climate change, trying to determine how to best adapt forestry techniques to meet the changes forecast for the next 25 to 30 years