A potato resistant to the blight that caused the Irish famine 150 years ago has just sprouted at Purdue University. But it's not too late to help the Irish--or Idaho farmers. The disease remains the No.1 potato pest, and a particularly nasty, pesticide-resistant variety of the fungus popped up in 1991.
To boost the defense system of spuds, Purdue researchers borrowed a gene from tobacco plants and inserted it into potato plants. This gene codes for a protein, called osmotin, that brings death to the fungi by chemically drilling holes in their cell membranes. For humans, the protein is probably safe, says horticulture professor Paul M. Hasegawa, since it's produced by many food plants. While petri-dish results in the laboratory are promising, the field will be the true test of the potato's new genetic armor, says Hasegawa. His group is already working to adapt the technique to other crops, including soybeans, corn, tomatoes, and carnations.