CSU researcher appointed as new member of NSABB

Jan Leach, a rice researcher at Colorado State University, was recently appointed to a two-year term as a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.

The NSABB advises federal agencies about dual-use research and suggests guidelines to protect national security and public health without getting in the way of science. Leach works in CSU's Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management.

"I'm kind of a rosy person, so I don't like to think about terrorists," Leach said. "But I don't want to see science shut down because of irrational people."

Leach said that scientists must be involved in policy discussions because they are able to provide facts to back up the risks and benefits of dual-use research.

"What's important is to have rational scientists making decisions, rather than people who don't have the full view of the science involved," Leach said. "Many of these discussions involve risk-benefit analysis. 'What's the balance? If we block research because of the potential for evil, do we block our ability to help people?'"

Leach is a foremost expert in rice genomics and on how plants and pathogens interact at the molecular level. For three decades, Leach studied the Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae bacterium. The bacterial pathogen wipes out between 20 and 50 percent of rice crops raised by farmers in Asia.

In 2008, federal officials declared the bacterium a select agent that might have potential for use in bioterrorism. By complying with regulations for her laboratory and greenhouse, Leach gained expertise in managing dual-use research.

Leach called solving the problem with Xanthomonas oryzae a moral obligation.

"Every time I travel in Asia and I see how important rice is to people, and how devastating it is when a family loses a crop to disease, I realize our research has an important outcome," Leach said. "I always come back with a new amount of energy."