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Technology becomes the blight of the Irish Potato Famine pathogen

Copyright free (Pixabay/Creative Commons CC0)
News from: Horticulture and Potato Initiative
News from: The Sainsbury Laboratory
Copyright: Steve Adams
Professor Jonathan Jones and Dr Marina Pais inspecting the blight-resistant potato plants developed in the glasshouses at The Sainsbury Laboratory. Copyright: Steve Adams

A potato modified to resist the devastating disease ‘late blight’ has proven a brilliant success, says BBSRC-funded scientists based at Norwich Research Park.

The team, led by Professor Jonathan Jones and part of BBSRC’s Horticulture and Potato Initiative (HAPI), have introduced a blight-resistant gene from a wild potato to its close relative, the popular Maris Piper.

Blight is a globally serious problem. It was a significant contributor to the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s and, in the twentieth century, became the subject of biological weapons research owing to its ability to utterly decimate crops.

“The first year of the Maris Piper field trial has worked brilliantly”, said Professor Jones. “We’ve observed resistance to late blight in all the lines.

Copyright: Steve Adams
The Sainsbury Laboratory is trialling a genetically-modified potato designed to be resistant to blight. Copyright: Steve Adams

Crop losses due to late blight are still significant, and with an increasing global population with complex nutritional needs, greater steps are needed to be taken in order to improve agricultural sustainability and food security.

“We have the technology to solve the problems that affect many people’s livelihoods”, said Professor Jones. “Crop diseases reduce yields and require application of agri-chemicals, and this field trial shows that a more sustainable agriculture is possible.”

This new blight-resistant gene introduced to the Maris Piper offers the promise of furthering its crop strength, and even the possibility of avoiding the use of chemical fungicides in its cultivation altogether.

First introduced in 1966, the Maris Piper was the result of a potato breeding programme based in Cambridge. The key benefit of this ‘new’ potato was its resistance to potato cyst nematodes. Now fairly common in UK supermarkets, the Maris Piper is considered a good ‘all-rounder’, and is particularly popular for making chips and crisps.

Copyright: Steve Adams
Professor Jonathan Jones holds a cultivated potato in his right hand, and in his left a wild potato that is the source of one of the resistance genes used in the experiment. He is delighted with the success of the field trials. Copyright: Steve Adams

Field trials at Norwich are continuing, and next year the team will begin to explore the genetic traits that can improve tuber quality. The team hope to produce a crop that is less prone to bruise damaging - a problem that currently causes losses of around £200 per hectare - and help improve the quality and sustainability of the UK’s potato crop.

ENDS

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

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Tags: food security GM sustainable agriculture farming HAPI crops potatoes potato blight press release