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Irish Potato Famine Origins

May 27, 2013

Scientists have identified the genetic variant of the fungus-like organism responsible for setting off the Irish Potato Famine.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

The potato’s blighted history. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century killed one million people and prompted another million to leave Ireland permanently. Now, scientists have discovered the strain of potato blight responsible for the crop failures. The culprit is HERB-1, a genetic variant of the disease that probably originated in Mexico. To trace the history of HERB-1, the researchers visited museum herbariums, sampling DNA from blighted potatoes that were collected up to 170 years ago. Plant pathologist Sophien Kamoun of The Sainsbury Laboratory in England was part of the research team.

SOPHIEN KAMOUN (The Sainsbury Laboratory):

So what we’re doing here really is going back to the past to the past to try to be better prepared for the future.

HIRSHON:

He says understanding how potato blight and other plant pathogens evolved will help researchers develop more reliable crops to feed the world’s growing human population. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

"Skibbereen", an Irish town hit hard by the famine. (James Mahoney, 1847)