ITHACA, N.Y. — The golden nematode is a small pest that packs a big punch. The tiny roundworms are considered by the United States Department of Agriculture “to be potentially more dangerous than any of the insects and diseases affecting the potato industry.” On Thursday, Cornell opened a new research lab to combat the invasive species.

The new Golden Nematode Quarantine Facility will allow scientists from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and USDA to develop modern strategies for protecting New York’s potato crop and preventing nematodes from spreading. The facility upgrades were funded with a $1.2 million state grant and $400,000 from the federal government.

“The research being done at the Golden Nematode Quarantine Facility is critical to the stability and success of New York agriculture,” Kathryn Boor, Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS, said in a statement. “With the new state-of-the-art research equipment, we will continue to serve as farmers’ front line of defense against these invasive pests and be able to better mitigate new threats.”

Golden nematode cysts attached to potato roots, as viewed through a magnifying lens. (John Munson/Cornell University)

Potato farming in New York is a $54 million industry, according to a CALS media release, and if nematodes were to spread throughout the state’s soil it would devastate the crop. The pest, which forms cysts on potatoes, tomatoes and a variety of root crops and can survive in soil for up to 30 years, was first detected in the U.S. on Long Island, where it was found to be the cause of crop failure in 1941. The golden nematode has since been identified in nine New York counties, but strict quarantine measures have prevented it from spreading more widely. Since 2010, over a million acres have been removed from the state’s quarantine map, leaving about 190,000 regulated acres and 6,000 where nematode infestations are considered active.

The goal of the new Golden Nematode Quarantine Facility is to foster state-of-the-art research that will protect past containment efforts and prevent future outbreaks.  Nematodes are generally managed by planting resistant potato varieties and rotating crops that do not harbor the pest while quarantining crops from infested areas. The process is time-intensive and requires biological research innovations to maintain crop resistance while the pest adapts.

“We still need new, better varieties of golden nematode-resistant potatoes that are more accepted by our markets, which are potato chip markets,” Gary Mahany, a farmer and former president of Empire State Potato Growers Inc, said in a statement.

Mahany said he hopes researchers at Cornell will target threats on the horizon like the pale cyst nematode, too, which has prompted a ban on exports from several counties in Idaho.

“Hopefully along the way someone will come up with a potato that is pale-cyst nematode-resistant. A lot of counties in Idaho can’t export because of the pale-cyst nematode, and they’re going to spread,” he said.

Senator Tom O’Mara looks through a magnifying lens at nematodes growing on potato roots. (John Munson/Cornell University)

Representatives from state and federal government applauded Cornell’s work to protect the potato farmers. Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton and Sen. Tom O’Mara attended Thursday’s ribbon-cutting and said the upgraded research facility would bring statewide benefits.

“Cornell scientists and their government partners have worked tirelessly for decades to keep the golden nematode at bay, preventing catastrophic damage to the state’s potatoes, soybeans and turf grass,” Lifton said. She said she supported state funding for the upgrade “so that this innovative research can continue protecting New York’s agricultural industry for many years to come.”

O’Mara said Cornell’s research has been essential to containing the golden nematode for decades and that modernization would protect the agricultural industry going forward. “Cornell’s efforts throughout the past century to contain this threat, and to conduct the research and development that will always be the front line of protection for our regional growers and farmers throughout New York State and the nation, has been remarkable,” he said.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said the new lab is “a true win-win” for potato farmers and Cornell, preventing “the potentially catastrophic spread of the golden nematode” and advancing cutting edge research.

The microscopic worms pose an immense threat, but CALS is positioning itself to meet the challenge. As Mahany put it, “Cornell has always had the brain trust for dealing with the nematodes. I think it’s really important that the lab is updated so the brain trust will stay at Cornell.”

Featured image: Chris Logue, Director of the Division of Plant Industry for New York Ag and Markets, Gary Mahany, former director of the Empire State Potato Growers Inc., Kathryn J. Boor, Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Ronald P. Lynch Dean, Tom O’Mara, New York State Senator (R,C,I-Big Flats) and Barbara Lifton, New York State Assemblywoman (D-125AD, Tompkins/Cortland) cut the ribbon in front of the new Golden Nematode Quarantine Facility at Cornell University. (John Munson/Cornell University)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at or 607-391-0328.