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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The trip from the farmer’s field to the scientist’s microscope just got a lot shorter, thanks to new digital technology at the University of Tennessee’s Plant and Pest Diagnostic Center.

The Nashville laboratory, a part of the UT Agricultural Extension Service, is coupling digital cameras and the Internet to give the state’s farmers quick answers about the bugs and blights that attack their crops. The program is called the Distance Diagnostics through Digital Imaging System.

“Traditionally, the Plant and Pest Diagnostic Center is where plant samples are sent to be identified,” said Dr. Alan Windham, a professor of plant pathology with the center. “With this program, we don’t have to receive the plants anymore, just digital images of the plant over the Internet.

“The old method used to take two to four days. Now in an emergency we can do give a diagnosis for most problems in an hour.”

Five extension offices across the state have been equipped with digital cameras and binocular and compound microscopes, Windham said.

A farmer can bring in a plant or insect to the county agent’s office. There the agent can put the specimen under a microscope and take a digital photo of it.

Specialists then upload the image to the diagnostic center’s web site for identification. If necessary, the agent can take the camera to the farm and make a digital photo of conditions in the field.

Digital diagnosis is available in Nashville, Knoxville, Jackson, and Robertson and Montgomery counties, Windham said. He expects Shelby and Rutherford counties to have digital diagnosis capabilities after July 1. Another 15 to 20 counties will have digital cameras soon, but without the microscopes, he said.

The center typically handles about 4,000 pest identifications a year. So far in 1999, 125 of the center’s diagnoses have been using digital techniques.

“We’ve been able to identify all insects submitted and from 50 to 75 percent of the plant pests,” Windham said. “If we can’t identify a specimen from the digital images, we can always request that the sample be mailed to us in the traditional fashion.”

The shortened diagnosis time allows farmers to begin treating the problems plaguing their crops much more quickly.

The web site is not currently open to submissions from the general public, but Windham foresees compiling a library of digital images that could be accessed on-line. The library would provide the opportunity to view samples of common pests and diseases that are causing problems.

Setting up a digital diagnosis site in a county costs about $10,000. The Tennessee program is modeled on a similar operation in Georgia.