Hybrid Spuds That Could Avoid The Irish Potato's Fate

The decimation of the Irish potato crops in the 1840s was caused by a fungus dubbed "late blight." It is primarily transmitted in the "tubers," or small potato pieces cut up and planted to create a new crop. Now, U.S. potato growers are shuddering at news from the University of Florida: Although fungicide has kept one strain of the fungus under control in the U.S. for decades, a second strain has emerged and is spreading quickly. Researchers fear it could mate with the original strains to produce organisms that would threaten the $5 billion annual American potato crop. Both strains have been found in Florida and other states, where they have ruined entire crops. Now, the Florida researchers are worried that spores created by the mating strains of the fungus could live in soil year-round--and be resistant to fungicides.

At least one biotech company believes it can help stem the spread of the disease. Escagenetics Corp. in San Carlos, Calif., has painstakingly developed so-called true potato seeds, which it can guarantee as disease-free. The company says some of its hybrid seeds appear to be resistant to late blight and could help farmers grow potatoes even in diseased soil.


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