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“Spuds Unearthed!” Exhibit Digs Up History of the Potato

Jean Ristaino of North Carolina State University used USDA funds to sequence late blight disease, pictured, responsible for the Irish potato famine. Her research is leading to new ways to combat the disease.

Jean Ristaino of North Carolina State University used USDA funds to sequence late blight disease, pictured, responsible for the Irish potato famine. Her research is leading to new ways to combat the disease.

The potato is the world’s fourth largest food crop and is the largest vegetable crop in the United States. The crop originated in the Andes Mountains in South America, and in the ensuing 7,000 years, has spread across the globe. Potatoes have played an important role in saving populations of people around the world from starvation. However, the potato has had a tumultuous history, suffering from late blight disease, which caused the Irish potato famine and a severe outbreak in 2009 in the United States.

Despite all this, the 7,000 varieties of potatoes have made their mark on agriculture as well as many cultures throughout the world. With funding from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Jean Ristaino, professor of plant pathology at North Carolina State University, contributed to the Spuds Unearthed! exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., which focuses on the history of the potato, its diversity and its mark on pop culture. A whole genome sequence of the pathogen that causes late blight disease also resulted from the funded project. That sequence provided the basic knowledge that has enabled Ristaino and her colleagues to develop new methods of combating this challenging disease. Ristaino’s display, “CSI Dublin: The Hunt for the Irish Potato Killer,” details her research on identifying the strain of P. infestans that caused the Irish potato famine.

She is continuing her research with scientists from Cornell University and the University of California to study the strain of the pathogen that caused the 2009 late blight disease outbreak. The team hopes to begin nationwide tracking of the pathogen and develop a more stable resistance to the disease.

And she’s not done with museums yet, the group hopes to take their exhibit on a national science museum road tour and educate the public about the importance of potatoes and the role plant pathology and genomics research plays in improving global food security. In the meantime, you can visit Spuds Unearthed! in the East Gallery of the Botanic Garden through October 11.

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