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New Research to tackle £3 billion potato problem

Researchers at the University of Warwick and the University of Dundee are to lead a £3.5million project investigating how microbes are able to cause the notorious crop disease late blight – responsible for the Irish potato famine and still wreaking havoc around the world.  Late blight is still the most destructive potato disease in the world and accounts for more than £3billion a year in crop failure and the cost of fungicides.  

Now researchers at the University of Warwick , the University of Dundee, and the Scottish Crop Research Institute, are to examine how molecules called effectors from the potato pathogen Phytophthora infestans are able to cause late blight and Hyaloperonospora arabidopsidis effectors cause downy mildew in the model plant Arabidopsis 

The £3.5million grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council comes under the Longer and Larger (LoLa) programme to fund collaborative research. The research project will be led by Professor Paul Birch, in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Dundee, in collaboration with Professor Jim Beynon at the University of Warwick, and involves researchers at the Scottish Crop Research Institute, based just outside Dundee.  

Professor Beynon said,

 “Amazingly, of the hundreds of effectors in Phytophthora  and Hyaloperonospora , it appears that none of them are the same. However, these effectors must suppress common host proteins in the plant immune system. Identifying these host proteins is vital for new strategies for plant disease prevention.” 

Professor Birch said

“Late blight, in the mid-19th century, was responsible for the Irish potato famine when a million people died of starvation and more than 1.5 million emigrated from Ireland. Today, it is still the worst potato disease and results in huge losses. Recently, two related species, Phytophthora ramorum and Phytophthora kernoviae have been introduced into the UK, where they are infecting native trees and shrubs, posing a considerable threat to gardens and the natural environment”. 

“As in animals, plants have evolved a complex immune system to prevent attack from micro-organisms but microbes continue to evolve ways to get round the defences and establish disease. They achieve this by secreting proteins called effectors into cells of the plant which block the plant’s immune responses.  The discovery that the pathogens Phytophthora  and Hyaloperonospora have hundreds of genes encoding these effectors, along with recent advances in technology to study protein-protein interactions, provides an unparalleled opportunity to investigate how plant defences are targeted and suppressed by invading microbes.”

The research could have implications not just for late blight and downy mildew but for many other plant diseases.  

“We can imagine that many of the host plant proteins targeted by Phytophthora effectors will also represent key ‘pressure points’ that are manipulated by other pests and pathogens, so understanding late blight will hopefully have knock-on benefits for other plant diseases,” said Professor Birch. 

“Plant disease is a considerable obstacle to global food production, so we hope this research will have wide implications for food security. When we understand the molecular interactions in the plant cell and how microbes cause disease, we can work out novel strategies to control or prevent crop losses and environmental damage”. 

For further information please contact:

Dr Sharon Hall, Science Communications Officer
Warwick HRI  The University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0)24 7657 5254

Peter Dunn, Press and Media Relations Manager
Communications Office, University House, University of Warwick,
Coventry, CV4 8UW, United Kingdom     
UK Tel: +44 (0)24 76 523708 Mobile +44 (0)7767 655860 
Twitter:   @PeterJDunn

PR31 23rd April 2009