Detective story: How genomics found the culprit in Ireland’s Great Famine

px Irish potato famine Bridget ODonnel
Depiction of the Irish potato famine from Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

More than 1 million people died over the course of Ireland’s Great Famine between 1845 and 1852. We know, of course, that a blight had wiped out an entire species of potato — a staple of the Irish diet. But precisely what strain of the blight pathogen it was, exactly, had remained a mystery … until now.

Now, scientific and historical two-for-one, researchers have used dried potato leaves from herbariums to sequence the genome of the pathogen that caused the Great Famine.  The culprit was a single strain of the fungus-like pathogen Phytophthora infestans — and not the common strain that was long the prime suspect.This marks the first time scientists have used dried leaves to decode the genome of a plant pathogen.

Those worried about a resurgence of the dreaded potato blight can breathe a sigh of relief: the strain of potato blight in question is extinct.

The study opens up a new avenue of genomics research using dried leaves from herbariums, which have proven to be a good source of DNA.

Read more about the discovery in these stories:

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