Scientists develop potatoes that ‘resist late blight’

Late blight is a plant disease that can devastate a potato crop, and was responsible for the Great Famine in Ireland in 1846 to 1852.

The disease is caused by the fungus-like organism Phytophthora infestans, a pathogen specialized to infect potato plants and, to a lesser extent, tomato plants. The pathogen is of particular concern in Europe, as the organism thrives in the continent’s damp and humid growing conditions.

The BBC recently reported that British scientists have developed genetically modified potatoes that are resistant to late blight. The article states that a three-year trial showed that these potatoes can thrive despite being exposed to late onset blight.

In the scientists’ published research, they argue that manipulating a plant’s genes to “tip the evolutionary balance in favour of the crop and away from the pathogen” is preferable to “costly recurrent chemical sprays.”

While the development of potatoes that can resist late blight may be welcome news to some, to others, the results do not justify the means — genetic modification.

The BBC article quoted Professor Chris Pollock of Aberystwyth University as saying: “Late blight of potatoes is a difficult disease to control, and using genes from distant relatives is a valuable tool. Unfortunately, the problems in the current European regulatory process, which is expensive and extremely slow, means that this advance by UK scientists is far more likely to help farmers in other countries.”

UPDATE 06/24/14: Researchers at the James Hutton Institute have pinned down the origin of late blight: a highland valley in central Mexico. One of the researchers, Dr. David Cooke, a plant pathologist at the Institute, said: “Identifying the elusive origin of P. infestans is absolutely critical to understand the mechanisms through which this pathogen is able to strike repeatedly in different parts of the world.”

Additionally, a study at the Institute has been able to map locations in Europe where potato blight has infected crops. Researchers say that they are monitoring changes in populations and characteristics of the disease to better employ pest management strategies.  The mapping of the project will continue over the 2014 growing season.

For information on Neogen’s phytodiagnostic products, click here.

Comments are closed.