Under the microscope: A nematologists career in agriculture

by | Apr 27, 2022

We Are Agriculture is a year-long series that will highlight the hard-work done by employees across the Department of Agriculture. Dr. Weimin Ye, Nematology Section Chief in our Agronomic Services Division, is one of those employees. Stay tuned each Wednesday here on the blog or any of our social media accounts and join us in honoring those who continue to drive our state’s agriculture industry forward each day!

The agriculture industry has expanded and improved through the past 15 years, from crops grown across the state to technology advancements in the industry. No one has noticed the impact of these changes in the realm of agricultural science more than nematologist, Dr. Weimin Ye.

Growing up in Asia, Dr. Ye fell in love with agriculture and has spent his entire life pursuing that passion. “I grew up in a town where agriculture was our number one industry so I was surrounded by it,” he said. “I attended an agriculture university where I obtained my bachelor’s degree in plant protection and then went on to get my masters in nematology.” After college, Dr. Ye worked in the plant quarantine field for nine years before his desire to obtain a PhD in nematology brought him to the United States.

In 2005, he started with the department as the Agronomic Services Division’s Nematology Section Chief and has been there ever since. Nematology is the study of nematodes or roundworms. According to Dr. Ye, there are almost 1 million estimated species of nematodes with 26,000 of them currently named. Although not all of these species are found in our state, the nematode presents a huge problem to the agriculture industry each year. “Nematodes can be found in any type of soil or water, so they dramatically affect farmers and agriculture industry workers by posing a threat to their crops,” he said. “It’s our job to identify the type of nematode through sample testing, including microscopic examination and molecular diagnosis, so that we can help the farmer treat the problem efficiently and effectively before planting.”

A typical day for Dr. Ye consists of both time in the office and time in the lab. Although he is responsible for administration and technical support within the Nematode Section, his primary role is nematode molecular diagnosis and morphology study. “All nematodes have a similar makeup but each species has a unique DNA strand,” he explained, “so I use a microscope and the genetic information found in the sample to identify the specific species.” The improvement of technology over the years has helped his task dramatically as the demand for nematode analysis testing has increased. “We have a high demand for testing now, especially in sweet potatoes, and the technology we have today helps us identify a species quickly and accurately,” he said. “Nematodes are microscopic, which means that the human eye cannot see them. With the exception of the root-knot nematode, they don’t cause any specific symptoms in the field so you have to have a certain level of experience and the right lab technology to identify them in the lab.”

Throughout his 17 years at the NCDA&CS, the Agronomic Service’s Division’s nematode sample load has increased nearly 50% due to the increased awareness of nematode assay from our growers, discovery of the regulated guava root-knot nematode in 2013 in sweet potatoes and the lab’s development of a pinewood nematode assay to support the export of pine wood logs. “We not only receive routine agricultural samples from farmers and consultants in North Carolina, but also from wood exporters and scientists across the country,” he said. “We’ve become the largest nematode assay lab in the U.S. because we test samples not only for growers, but also for USDA, APHIS, PPQ and more to support a phytosanitary certification.” The Nematode Assay Lab processes anywhere from 45,000 to 52,000 samples per year. Dr. Ye is very proud of his excellent team for processing this big sample increase.

Once a nematode is identified in a specific area, Dr. Ye and his team determine the proper treatment. “Sometimes it is as simple as rotating the crop or choosing a resistant variety, other times it requires chemical treatment with a nematicide,” he said. “There are a variety of nematodes that are out there, and we do everything that we can to ensure our customers can both solve the problem and restore their production.”

Although he loves every part of his job, Dr. Ye takes immense pride in his research and findings through nematode microscopic morphological identification and molecular diagnosis. “I have the opportunity every single day to observe these critical nematodes that impact our industry in massive ways,” he said, “so knowing that I am able to help our industry and our farmers solve a problem through the work that I do, and thus further the agriculture industry of our state, gives me an incredible sense of pride and validation that I am doing what I was called for.”

When he is not in the lab, Dr. Ye enjoys working out, playing basketball, volleyball and tending to his at-home garden. “I have never been very good at sports but I love to play for fun,” he joked. “I also find a lot of joy in tending the garden where my wife and I grow a variety of Asian vegetables, peppers, squash, green onions and more.” Join us in thanking Dr. Ye for all the important work he does with our Agronomic Services Division both inside and outside the lab!