A WSU plant pathologist is part of a team of researchers who have received a $1.3 million grant to study root rot and needle drop-off — diseases that cost the Christmas-tree industry millions of dollars every year.

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Christmas trees are rotting in the ground across the Pacific Northwest because of a Grinch-like fungal disease that researchers from WSU and other universities will begin trying to combat.

Gary Chastagner, a plant pathologist at Washington State University, and a team of researchers from other universities have received a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research Phytophthora root rot, a disease that costs the Christmas-tree industry millions of dollars every year. The team will also research needle drop-off.

Phytophthora is a funguslike organism that thrives in damp, poorly drained places like the Pacific Northwest, which grows 40 percent of the nation’s Christmas trees, Chastagner said. An infestation may wipe out 75 percent of a tree grower’s field.

The grant will allow Chastagner and his team to sequence the genes of plants, particularly true firs, to identify those resistant to both Phytophthora and needle drop-off.

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“The long-term game plan is once we develop some markers, that would allow us to more accurately identify some resistant factors,” Chastagner said.

Those trees can then be bred to increase resistance to the pesky problems, and eventually make their way onto tree farms across the country.

Chastagner has been a leader in tree research for more than a decade, traveling as far as Turkey to find a better Christmas tree. Certain breeds, he discovered, are more resistant to fungal infections and needle drop-off, primarily the Nordmann and Turkish firs, both native to Turkey.

Growers say Chastagner has already left his mark on the billion-dollar-a-year industry.

“It’s transformed my business,” said Randy Rapetti, owner of Rapetti Farms in Camino, Calif.

Rapetti said before Chastagner’s work, he would lose entire fields to the fungus.

“All I plant on my property are Nordmann fir and Douglas fir,” he said.

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