The plant doctor- a moment of science

A Moment of Science

Call him the plant doctor.

A professor of plant pathology, Tony Kenaith’s patients are cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, tomatoes- all economically important crops grown here in South Carolina. His job here at the Coastal Research and Education Center is to better understand how to keep these plants healthy and free from diseases- including downy mildew.

Downy mildew is a fungus-like organism that can quick infect and reduce vine crop harvests. infects vine crops. Kenaith explains,

“The downy mildew organism is feeding on the leaf and as it takes nutrients out of the leaf the leaf turns yellow. As the disease progresses those yellow spots become brown.”

Limiting the amount of nutrients that the plant gets from the sun- resulting in smaller, sometimes misshapen produce that can’t be sold.

The disease itself spreads through airborne spores, traveling by wind upwards to 1000 miles in a matter of days. Growers can report and track outbreaks online. Once infected there’s not much a farmer can do to stop it. Infection can be prevented by applying short-lived fungicides to the crops, but constant use negatively impacts both the environment and the farm’s bottom line.

To nail down when to apply fungicides, the center has this field which acts as an early warning system for Lowcountry growers. A canary in the coal mine.


“So when downy mildew spores arrive, they can quickly infect these plants and then we can warn those growers that downy mildew and it’s time for them to start spraying.”

Tony Kenaith, Plant Pathologist at the Coastal Research and Education center

This is just one part of Kenaith’s job.

His research also includes testing the effectiveness of various fungicides- which will be necessary for the near future of our food production. To illustrate this, let’s head into their lab and into cold storage. This fridge contains a historical record of fungi dating back over 25 years, allowing for plant pathologists to see how the fungi population has changed…unfortunately for the worse.

The majority of the fungus population is now resistant to fungicides which worked two decades ago- now warranting a smarter and more science-based approach in managing diseases that afflict our vegetables. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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