Modified potato resists fungus behind infamous Irish famine

Feb. 17, 2014 at 7:12 PM
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NORWICH, England, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- British researchers say a genetically modified potato appears immune to the devastating fungus responsible for the great Irish famine of 1845.

The new strain has proved to be resistant to a condition known as late blight, caused by the Phytophthora infestans, and which remains the potato farmer's greatest enemy to this day, they said.

British farmers spend about $100 million annually fighting the fungus with pesticides.

During the Irish potato famine of 1845, more than 750,000 Irish men, women and children died in the ensuing 10 years and another 2 million left their homeland.

The new research into GM potatoes aims to produce a crop that could fight off blight without the aid of chemicals, the researchers said.

"With new insights into both the pathogen and its potato host, we can use GM technology to tip the evolutionary balance in favor of potatoes and against late blight," lead researcher Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory told the Daily Telegraph.

However, the researchers acknowledged, it is uncertain how long the GM strain of potato will hold out against blight, notorious for its ability to overcome resistance.

"Breeding from wild relatives is laborious and slow and by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the late blight pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it," Jones said.

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