Genetic Mystery of Irish Potato Famine Solved.

potatoI’m Currently in the middle of BBC’s fantastic documentary The Story of Ireland, narrated by Fergal Keane. Investigated in one of the episodes are the devastating consequences of the potato blight which caused the Irish Famine in the mid-19th century. Caused by the microorganism, Phytophthora infestans (Latin for ‘plant destroying infestation), the blight destroys the leaves of potato crops causing the potatoes to rot.

Today, published an article which grabbed my already-peaked interest in this dark time in Irish history. A team of molecular biologists from Europe and the US have reconstructed the spread of the potato blight pathogen from dried plants obtained during the height of the Irish Famine from Ireland, the UK, Europe and North America. These had been preserved in the herbaria of the Botanical State Collection Munich and the Kew Gardens in London.

Scientists used these samples to identify a previously-unrecorded strain of the pathogen HERB-1. It is the first time scientists have decoded the genome of a plant pathogen and its plant host from dried herbarium samples.

The Great Famine had an impact so devastating that Ireland’s population has still has not recovered  to pre-famine levels.

It is thought that the selective breeding of blight-resistant crops caused this strain to become extinct.

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The episode of The Story of ireland about the famine can be viewed here.

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About the author: Conor Hughes works as a Marketing Executive at Life Science Recruitment

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