ST. Paul, Minn. (March 16, 1998)—It started with the Irish Potato Famine, and now after 150 years, plant pathologists remain persistent in their struggle to find solutions to the newest strains of the aggressive late blight fungus (Phytophthora infestans). The latest battle against this devastating fungus, however, isn't taking place in a lab or out in a potato field. Instead, the American Phytopathological Society (APS) is taking the late blight battle online offering a clearinghouse of the most comprehensive information available at www.scisoc.org. This interactive, educational website looks at the historical impacts of late blight, highlights key research articles, presents an online curriculum and offers links to other key late blight information.
"Plant pathologists are on the front line of this issue, warning growers and consultants of the heightened risks posed by the new strains and investigating improved management activities," says Bill Fry, plant pathologist at Cornell University and past president of APS. "Massive educational and international research efforts are essential."
Fortunately, potato isn't the sole food crop for consumers in the U.S. and Europe as it was in Ireland 150 years ago, when unsuspecting farmers planted their crops and the perfect weather conditions for the potato disease fungus arrived. What soon would become known historically as the Irish Potato Famine, was the result of the first major late blight outbreak which turned the vigorous green crops into seas of blighted, decaying vegetation in just a few weeks.
"Throughout Europe the potato crops failed," says Gail Schumann, plant pathologist at the University of Massachusetts and member of APS. According to her book, Plant Diseases: Their Biology and Social Impact, "The disaster was worst in Ireland because of the nearly complete dependence of Irish peasants on the potato for their food. The struggle to find a cure for this disaster actually led to the birth of plant pathology as a science."
Plant pathologists have made significant headway in the past 150 years, but the disease in its varied strains still persists. "The impact of these new strains has a devastating effect on the growers," says Fry. "Reduced yields, increased potato blight during storage and shipping, and heightened fear of the new aggressive strains of late blight are just some of the issues they have to deal with. Even trying to keep the fungus under control causes significant economic hardship because of dramatically increased fungicide costs. We hope that through the continued research of plant pathologists worldwide, we'll find a strategy to effectively control late blight."
The American Phytopathological Society is a professional scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant disease with more than 5,000 members worldwide.