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:

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
ft covidresponseus feature

Video: Viewpoint: The US wrote the global playbook on the coronavirus and then ignored it

A year ago, the United States was regarded as the country best prepared for a pandemic. Our government had spent ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend