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Researcher uses science to combate false claims

By Bryan Richardson

Historically, Alma Laney isn’t a fan of fake news.

The term has gained prominence in the political realm in recent months, but the issue goes beyond this time frame for Laney, a research associate in K-State’s plant pathology department.

“Science advocates have been pushing back against fake news for a long time,” hes said. “It’s really what’s been driving a lot of the misinformation about different things.”

Laney started The Mad Virologist, a Facebook page, in 2014 to combat the bad information on social media about science-related issues. He said the Ebola outbreak led him to create the page.

“There was really a lot of misinformation going around,” he said. “People were saying you can just take this berb, and you’ll be protected from Ebola, and all sort of crazy things.”

Laney said he answers a lot of questions about the safety of vaccines.

“We’re seeing vaccine-preventable diseases making a comeback,” he said. “There are risks, but compared to the diseases, it’s not even a really good comparison between the two.”

Laney’s career path started as a 19-year-old college student.

Laney, who grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon, was attending Oregon State University as mechanical engineering major when he got an H. pylori infection.

H. pylori bacteria resides in stomach acid, causing stomach inflammation. Laney said he dealt with it for six months.

“I got really sick, and that got me really interested in microbes,” he said. “As I started studying, I got really interested in viruses.”

Laney changed his major and received his bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Oregon State in 2008.

“I started working with plant viruses and really got hooked,” he said. “With those other viruses, we have immune systems. With a plant, they can’t get away from a virus. They can’t wash their leaves to stop the spread of a virus.”

Laney came to K-State in August 2014 after getting his master’s degree in plant pathology and a doctorate in plant science from the University of Arkansas.

He now lives in Manhattan with his wife of nearly eight years, Erin, and their 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter with another son on the way.

For his postdoctoral work, Laney has been studying barley yellow dwarf in Kansas wheat, which causes discoloration and stunted growth.

“In bad years with outbreaks, you can get a 2-to-3-percent disease loss (in the state),” he said. “depending on the year, that’s worth between $70 million and $100 million.”

Laney received a two-year grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, working to identify lines that have a resistance to the virus. He recently completed the first year of the grant.

“With everything, there’s a tradeoff,” he said. “some lines might be susceptible to other diseases. There’s really not a silver bullet right now.”

The overall goal of plant pathologist like Laney is providing increased food security for a growing world.

Laney said people often don’t think about how plant viruses can affect daily lives.

“With this particular disease in developing nations, the losses can be upwards of 50 percent of more,” he said. “Some places is over 70 percent depending on if it’s a bad year or not.”

Considering his desire to educate the public, in shouldn’t be surprising that Laney has an example of how plant viruses can affect people’s daily lives.

For instance, Valentine’s Day would look different if there was a chocolate shortage.

In Africa, Laney said the cacao tree - “the chocolate tree” - can be affected with a virus that reduces the yield.

“They’re really worried about that disease making it over to the New World, where there’s another area of chocolate production,” he said.  “Chocolate could end up being much more expensive if you’re able to get it. That example really helps people understand.”

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