Larry Englander, URI associate professor of plant pathology, is an expert on the closest known relative of the killer fungus. So he was asked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service to quickly determine the parameters to its growth and survivability.
Sudden oak death is a water mold fungus that is causing an oozing canker on the trunk of oak trees from Big Sur, Calif. to the Oregon border. Trees infected with the fungus typically die within two or three months. Discovered in 1995 but only identified last year, the fungus has killed more than 100,000 trees and baffled scientists trying to understand it.
"Its so brand new that virtually nothing is known about it," said Englander. "Its still a mystery as to how it got to California. I think it needs to be in a moist environment, and this area of coastal California is like a rainforest -- very lush growth, hilly, with fog banks and rain a good part of the winter."
While the fungus has already had a devastating effect on the oak forests of California, there is an even greater concern that it could find its way across the country and wipe out the eastern forests. Scientists have tested several species of eastern oaks to see if they are susceptible to the fungus, and many are, especially red oaks.
"The fungus can definitely move from plant to plant, but that would likely restrict it to the west. Or it could be self-limiting and not move beyond its current range," explained Englander. "The big concern, though, is that people could transport it long distances either by moving plants around or by tracking infected mud from one place to another."