A field trial of GM potatoes is being planted this week to test whether genes from wild relatives can successfully protect commercial potato varieties from late blight – the disease that caused the Irish potato famine – without the need to spray fungicides.
British farmers spray on average 15 times a year to protect against potato late blight.
“We have isolated genes from two different wild potato species that confer blight resistance,” said Professor Jonathan Jones from the Sainsbury Laboratory on Norwich Research Park. “Similar genes are found in all plants, and we are now testing whether these ones work in a field environment to protect a commercial potato variety, Desiree, against this destructive potato disease.”
Cultivated potatoes originate from South America, and scientists have been screening species from this region to identify genes that give the plants resistance to late blight. They identified two genes and have grown two separate lines of potato to test each gene. The two sets of plants are now ready to be planted out to see if the genes work against races of late blight that circulate naturally in the UK.
The wild South American species are inedible and produces tiny tubers, so scientists sieved out just the genes of interest from the 30,000 or so in their genomes. The Sainsbury Lab has filmed a video over the last few months to show how the commercial potato variety receives the protective gene.
The research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.