Ken Eastwell at the Yakima Valley Convention Center in Yakima Washington on Jan 10, 2014. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Dr. Ken Eastwell has worked nearly 35 years in plant disease virology and is considered the global expert on little cherry disease. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Dr. Ken Eastwell, Washington State University virologist and director of the Clean Plant Center Northwest, which he created, is retiring in January.

Eastwell, a native of Alberta, Canada, developed an interest in plant disease viruses while pursuing his doctorate in biochemistry, which he received in 1981 at the University of Alberta.

His career in plant disease virology spans 34 years, beginning with a postdoctoral position at the University of California, Davis. From 1984 to 1988, he continued his virus research at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

From 1988 to 1997, he directed the little cherry disease control program at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Center in Summerland, British Columbia, and was a board member of the B.C. Certified Budwood Society.

In addition, he investigated biocontrol strategies for crown gall disease in grapes and a virus that infects apple codling moth.

In 1997, he succeeded retiring tree fruit virus specialist Dr. Gaylord Mink, at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser.

At WSU, Eastwell quickly went to work to develop a program to detect, identify, and eliminate viruses and other disease agents of fruit trees and grapevines.

He continued his work on crown gall disease and  took on additional administrative duties, managing the federally funded clean plant foundation program for fruit trees, then known as the National Research Support Project 5 (NRSP-005).

This program develops and distributes virus-tested fruit trees to researchers and growers within the United States. Plant materials brought into the program come from foreign or domestic sources.

They are propagated and maintained in greenhouses and tested for the presence of disease agents.

Once they are deemed free of these pathogens, they are made available to tree fruit growers. All new introductions of fruit tree planting materials into the country must first pass through this protocol.

Bill Howell, operations manager of NRSP-005 when Eastwell arrived in 1997, said that federal funding for this critically important program kept shrinking every year down to a level that would not pay for even one person’s salary.

The future of NRSP-005 was uncertain. That was when Eastwell began to promote the idea of a federally supported national clean plant network.

Eastwell played a leadership role in the National Clean Plant Network initiative, a plan to network existing clean plant centers in the country to facilitate the introduction, virus-testing, and eventual release of clean plant materials to the growers. The tree fruit and grape industries were the first to embrace this initiative.

In 2008, he hosted the inaugural meeting of the federally funded National Clean Plant Network (NCPN).

Howell said that Eastwell rescued the NRSP-005 program from elimination with the new federal NCPN funding.

In the year 2000, Eastwell assumed management of the foundational hop program, and in 2008, he became director of the Northwest Grape Foundation Service with Dr. Markus Keller.

In 2011 he brought together the three WSU foundational programs of fruit trees, grapes, and hops, and the ELISA diagnostic testing laboratory under one management and named it the Clean Plant Center Northwest (CPCNW).

Eastwell used novel molecular approaches to improve detection and identification of viruses and virus-like agents and maintained a special focus on cherry diseases, especially cherry leafroll and little cherry disease.

He interacted with growers on a daily basis and frequently made site visits to investigate suspicious tree symptoms. (Read/Watch — “Know your enemy: Little cherry disease“)

In 2013, he received the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Plant Protection and Quarantine Deputy Administrator’s  Safeguarding Award in 2013 for serving on the Farm Bill Management Team.

In 2014, he received the American Phytopathological Society Award for Excellence in Regulatory Affairs and Crop Security.

The Clean Plant Center Northwest will continue its mission to serve the tree fruit, grape, and hop industries through virus-testing services and propagation, maintenance, and distribution of virus-free plant materials.

Gary Grove, director of the WSU-Prosser research and extension center, will serve as interim director of the center until a new director is hired.

After he retires, Eastwell plans to return to WSU on emeritus status to continue ongoing research projects in cherries and hops.

In particular, he is interested in continuing his work toward improved management strategies for little cherry disease, which has been a major concern for Washington cherry growers over the past five years.

“Ken Eastwell is considered the world’s expert on little cherry disease,” said Dr. Dan Villamor, virologist with the Clean Plant Center Northwest.

While Eastwell and his staff have made significant advances toward understanding this complex disease, much is still unknown.

Basically, little cherry disease is caused by three different agents: little cherry virus 1, little cherry virus 2, and Western X phytoplasma.

In grower-submitted samples to the CPCNW diagnostic testing laboratory, little cherry virus 2 was the most commonly detected pathogen followed by Western X phytoplasma.

Eastwell has long been interested in identifying the insects responsible for spreading the little cherry disease pathogens within and between orchards. While little cherry virus 1 has no known insect vector, little cherry virus 2 is known to be transmitted by apple mealybug.

Eastwell and Villamor will also continue their collaborative work on developing a comprehensive management program for little cherry disease with Dr. Betsy Beers and her postdoctoral associate, Dr. Andrea Bixby-Brosi at WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.

Eastwell’s and Villamor’s role in this project was to develop a user-friendly diagnostic kit for field personnel to use to detect trees infected by little cherry virus 2.

As a result of their efforts, the original Agdia kit was redesigned and released this past October. They plan to develop similar kits for detection of little cherry virus 1 and Western X phytoplasma. •

-by Holly Ferguson, Ph.D., a writer based in Moxee, Washington.