Researchers at the Invasive Plant Research Laboratory in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., are busy trying to find biocontrol options for invasive species that threaten native plants.

The latest example is the release of beneficial beetles to target air potato vine, an “aggressive, invasive exotic plant that is displacing native plant species and disrupting ecological functions throughout Florida,” according to the USDA-ARS.

Broward County students were “invited to participate in the beetle release to stimulate their interest in nature and biology, and to provide them with a deeper understanding of biological control and its benefit to the environment.”

Ted Center, research leader at the lab (http://www.ars.usda.gov/main/site_main.htm?modecode=66-29-00-00), spoke with Farm Press about the facility’s history, goals and current work. Among his comments:

The Invasive Plant Research Laboratory’s (IPRL) history…

“We were originally called the Aquatic Plant Control Research and released the first biocontrol agent on alligatorweed in 1962. That preceded my arrival here in 1971.

“We’ve since worked on multiple projects, with most of our focus through the years on aquatic weeds — water hyacinth, hydrilla, alligatorweed, water lettuce, giant salvinia.

“In the 1980s, we began work on an Everglades invader, melaleuca, a large tree from Australia. That’s probably the largest plant ever targeted for biocontrol, and it was a really successful project.

“Since then, we’ve taken on other Everglades invaders, including Brazilian pepper, climbing fern, and now air potato.

“We’ve developed and released 21 or 22 biocontrol agents over the past 50 years. It’s kind of a slow process — we get one out every couple of years.

“Our research involves all aspects of biocontrol. We start working with land-management agencies in choosing targets. Then, we must figure out where the invasives came from. Many times, that involves a lot of foreign travel.

“We do molecular matching to determine if the genotype of the test plant here matches the one from overseas. We then do surveys overseas to identify potential biocontrol agents and cooperate heavily with overseas laboratories. There are labs in Australia and Argentina that we cooperate with a lot. Other collaborators are in China, Thailand, Nepal, and Africa.