A large team of researchers has successfully sequenced the entire genome of one of the most famous pathogens in world history - the one which caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s - in work that could ultimately help address a resurgence of this pathogen that is still causing almost $7 billion of agricultural losses annually around the world.
Completion of the project, announced Wednesday in the journal Nature, is an important advance that could lead to new avenues of attack on this destructive pathogen, experts say. The work was led by the Broad Institute of Harvard University and MIT, and included collaborators from dozens of other institutions to make a task of this magnitude possible.
"Scientists have studied this pathogen for 150 years and there's still a great deal we don't know about it," said James Carrington, professor and director of the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing at Oregon State University and a collaborator on the project. "It caused one of the most important famines in history and is still a major problem that costs billions of dollars to fight."
In the short term, Carrington said, studies based on the new genetic "map" may help explain why the pathogen has been so aggressive, virulent and persistent, despite efforts to breed resistance to it. In the long run, the ability to breed far better plants and reduce use of chemicals will benefit from knowing exactly what genetic traits to look for and where they may be found on the huge genome of this pathogen, which has 240 million "base pairs" of DNA.
The pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, is commonly known as "late blight" and can infect potatoes, tomatoes and some other plants. Through its history it has been responsible for many crop epidemics, not the least of which was the Irish potato famine that led to the deaths of more than 1 million people in Ireland and a huge wave of immigration to the United States.
This research was supported by the USDA and the National Science Foundation. The complete text of this press release can be found at http://bit.ly/2P4S1.