The research of two BGSU biologists into Phytophthora infestans, the dangerous water mold that was responsible for the Irish potato famine, will be included in the Sept. 9 issue of Nature. The publication is one of the foremost international science journals.
Drs. Vipaporn Phuntumart and Paul Morris, biological sciences, were members of a cohort of 96 scientists who applied their expertise to the analysis of the genome sequence of the pathogen. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute coordinated the project.
The work is especially timely because the mold is considered a re-emerging disease and has recently attacked tomato crops at home gardens and farms in New York and Virginia as well as Ohio. In addition, increasing knowledge of how the plant pathogens work could also help scientists better understand how other organisms break down a body’s resistance to both disease and treatment.
Phytophthora infestans causes destructive leaf blight also known as “late blight” in potato and tomato in the U.S. and worldwide. It is now classified in a “supergroup” of protozoan and multicellular organisms that include both photosynthetic algae and the malarial pathogen. It infects and harms plants under cool, moist conditions. In the 1840s, the epidemics due to P. infestans known as the Irish potato famine led to starvation, death and mass migration of millions of people from Ireland.
Phuntumart and Morris’s interests focus on the evolution of membrane transporters. Comparisons across different Phytophthora genomes enable them to identify transporters that have diverged due to selective pressure from their plant hosts. In addition to providing insights into the evolutionary history of the pathogen, this approach will enable scientists to better understand the pathogenic strategies of this group of organisms. This information can then be used to develop better management strategies to minimize crop losses.
Phuntumart and Morris have also brought their gene-decoding skills to another member of the Phytophthora family, P. sojae, which causes soybean root rot—of great concern in northwest Ohio especially. Other members of the plant pathogen family attack various vegetables and even oak trees.