CM – Scientists in Ghent develop a vaccine against potato rot

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Alan Hope

Scientists at Ghent University have developed a vaccine against potato rot, one of the most common diseases in potatoes that led to the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s.

Potato rot or late blight is caused by the organism Phytophthora infestans, a type of fungus that can also attack tomatoes. There is also another unrelated disease known as potato rot or early rot that is caused by another organism.

Late blight was responsible for the lack of potato harvests resulting in famine in Europe in the 1840s, Ireland in 1845-1852, and the Scottish Highlands in 1846.

The usual treatment is currently with fungicides, but this can create problems related to overuse and produce ecotoxic results.

But now a team from the Faculty of Bioengineering at Ghent University has developed a vaccine that can prevent late blight without the negative environmental side effects.

The vaccine works like any other: by using a mutation in P. infestans to produce an immune response, the vaccine allows the plant to develop its own immune system to protect against the disease.

« In unprotected potato fields, the pathogen can cause the entire harvest to fail within seven to ten days, » explains project manager Professor Geert Haesaert.

This option is severely restricted by the EU’s Green New Deal, which provides for a 50% reduction in the use of fungicides.

« Our research group has therefore started looking for alternatives, including a possible effect of Green Leaf Volatiles or GLVs on the potato plant’s resistance to the pest, » he said.

GLVs actually use a natural phenomenon to increase plant resistance to pathogens. The volatiles are naturally released when plants suffer fiber damage, such as when cutting grass. Some GLVs have been found to improve plant resistance even in other species.

This unique trait is now being investigated by the CropFit group in the University’s Plants and Plants Group, with a particular focus on the Bintje potato – particularly prone to late blight and which happens to be Belgium’s favorite, especially for making french fries.

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