The potato disease that changed the world

Last Updated: June 13, 2016

Common potato has many secrets, and one of them has revealed a Danish genetic Michael David Martin. This scientist analyzed genetic material of potato in order to know how its disease could change the world. The potato is worldwide spread species, so Martin focused on researching the origins of blight itself, but this could also have positive side effects, not only negative ones as famine and migration.

A Danish scientist from NTNU’s University Museum in the Department of Natural History decided to find out more about blight in potatoes. During many centuries, this disease has caused both famine and waves of people migration. So, Associate Professor Michael David Martin focused his study on researching the origins of blight itself.

Besides the famine or migration waves, the potato’s blight have had the positive effect too. For deeper analysis Martin studied over 70 different historical samples of Phytophthora infestans and Phytophthora andina. Co-researchers from the University of Copenhagen were also involved into the blight’s reasons studying.

The point was to find the place on Earth where potato was born. In other words, if scientists could be able to identify the birthplace of this biological species, they’ll be able to explain the bight’s genetical roots. According to Martin, this place might be in Central America or South America.

Among the known potato specimens the oldest one is 170 years old. As Martin explained: “We found four basic gene sequences in P. andina that are a close match to the variant that caused the famine in the 1840s. Our analyses also show that P. andina and the historical variant of P. infestans split into two distinct groups before the modern Mexican varieties developed.”

In other words, the blight may have originated in the Andes, not in Mexico. When it has appeared in Mexico, it was mutated already. Scientists still got no answer on the question: where the blight appeared. Studying of this complex question is going on.