Scientists close in on potato blight cause and release Buntata app

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The pathogen responsible for the devastating crop disease potato late blight manipulates the plant’s growth and development to boost its infection process, a study has discovered.

Late blight played a major role in the historical Irish potato famine and is still a huge problem for farmers today, causing massive crop losses and proving difficult to manage by chemical control and traditional breeding methods.

The fungal-like pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, secretes a protein called AVR2 into the plant. This targets the plant’s mechanisms responsible for normal growth and development. This protein, or ‘effector’, can have an impact on the plant’s growth and immune response, allowing infection to spread.

Dr Eleanor Gilroy, a molecular plant pathologist and co-author of the study by the James Hutton Institute, said: ‘There are communication signals between growth and immunity systems in plants, allowing the plant to direct resources where they are needed most.

‘The late blight pathogen has evolved to exploit this communication link, tipping the balance in favour of growth so that disease can progress while the plant’s defences are low.

‘This discovery reveals a novel strategy the pathogen uses to suppress the plant’s immune system, highlighting a vulnerability in our crops that we could potentially target in the future to help protect them from disease.’

The role of effectors like AVR2 is not yet fully understood by scientists. Pathogens secrete them into plants during infection and the interaction between effectors and plants may open further avenues to research crop pests and diseases responsible for enormous global food crop losses each year.

The institute has also just published a blight map revealing the evolution of the potato disease in Europe, and launched Buntata, a free Android app to help potato growers identify plant pests and diseases in the field.

Named after the Gaelic word for potato, Buntata is flexible enough to be used without mobile coverage. Through downloadable datasets, the app helps identify potato pests and diseases easily and suggests further resources for growers to consult if they want to confirm the diagnosis.

Professor Lesley Torrance of the Buntata development team said: ‘There is no need to have prior knowledge of the pest, disease or other disorder as the app is designed to allow the farmer to match the symptoms of their potato plant or pest to symptoms in the database and it is mobile enough to be deployed in the field.’

 

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