Scientists crack the £3.5bn potato disease

Scientists have produced a series of genetically modified potatoes that are resistant to one of their biggest threats – a disease that costs the world up to £3.5bn ($5.8bn/€4.2bn) each year.

In a three year study scientists managed to boost the resistance of Desiree potatoes to stop the onset of blight, which was responsible for the Irish Potato famine in 1845. It is hoped their work will reduce food wastage as well as producing environmental benefits due to a reduction in chemicals being sprayed on crops.

As a result of the study, during which the scientists used no fungicides, The Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre produced a potato that was immune to late blight.

The study came to a head in 2012 when the test potatoes experienced ideal conditions for late blight. The scientists did not inoculate any plants but waited for traces of late blight to blow into the testing area naturally.

All of the genetically modified plants were resistant to the blight until the end of the experiment when all of the non-modified plants were infected.

The developments could significantly change the potato industry, which currently experiences more than £3.5bn of losses on an annual basis. This could not only lead to environmental benefits but help to increase the overall world food supply.

In the UK farmers spray fungicides 10-15 times to reduce losses to blight, which releases chemicals into the environment. It is hoped that growing blight-resistant crops will reduce the crop losses to the disease and reduce the number of times they need to be sprayed.

Scientists hope to replace chemical control with genetic control, though farmers might be advised to spray even resistant varieties at the end of a season, depending on conditions. Other blight-resistant potatoes already exist but are not widely available in the market because of other deficiencies.

For future development and to try and bring the research into the commercial potato market the scientists will now work with American potato company Simplot and the James Hutton Institute to develop the resistant genes. They hope to fully develop Desiree and Maris Piper varieties that will resist late blight.

Professor Jonathan Jones from The Sainsbury Laboratory said: “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,”

“With new insights into both the pathogen and its potato host, we can use GM technology to tip the evolutionary balance in favour of potatoes and against late blight.”

The full research, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and The Gatsby Foundation, is set to be published today in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Image courtesy of Szczel (Flickr).

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