March 31, 2011

Grant will attack late blight outbreaks, from genome to smartphone work

In the 1840s, late blight changed history by causing the Irish potato famine, and the pathogen -- Phythophthora infestans -- continues to strike tomato and potato fields around the world at a cost of $7 billion per year. Cornell researchers were recently awarded $1.5 million as part of a $9 million grant to develop a unified, interdisciplinary and tech-savvy approach to outpace the pathogen.

"Late blight kills the entire plant -- the stems, leaves and fruit -- and it can appear to happen overnight," said William Fry, professor and dean of the university faculty, who heads up the grant with associate professor Christine Smart, both in plant pathology and plant-microbe biology. "A field can be green, and only one week later it can be dead. The destruction is stunning."

The ignition switch for a late blight explosion is temperate and moist weather, and the pathogen spreads rapidly by wind and water among gardens and large farms alike. To control it, growers rely on fungicide sprays or resistant plant varieties, if they are available.

As part of the new project, breeders will attempt to develop additional resistant varieties as well as track the pathogen and give farmers updates and information.

Rapid communication is key to outpacing an outbreak, said Smart, who will coordinate outreach efforts among the 26 researchers and extension specialists involved in the project, including representatives from 16 institutions on the East and West Coasts, Scotland and Mexico, under the leadership of Howard Judelson of the University of California-Riverside. The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture program on global food security.

"Lack of communication has hindered disease management," Smart said. "It is remarkable that we currently are unable to get rapid information on the fungicide resistance of local pathogen strains to growers so they can make critical disease management decisions."

To learn how to better relay information -- such as using mobile phones and social media to contact growers, from home gardeners to large commercial farmers, social scientists have joined the team.

"Our communication research will determine how best to provide information to growers by learning what sources of information are both credible and useful for them," said associate professor Katherine McComas, who will be working with professor Geri Gay, both in the Department of Communication.

An online Decision Support System developed by Fry will assist growers in day-to-day disease management decisions based on weather and the risk of disease.

A national network of extension specialists, including Margaret McGrath, professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology at Cornell's Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center, will monitor for late blight outbreaks, sending samples to the labs of Fry and others for a complete characterization of the pathogen -- its genetic fingerprint, aggressiveness and resistance to fungicides.

McComas and Gay will also examine the intersection of public opinion with longer term strategies for disease control, including how consumers perceive the risk of purchasing fungicide treated versus non-sprayed, resistant but genetically modified tomatoes. Consumer perceptions of related attributes, such as local or organic, will also be considered.

Understanding the nuances of public opinion will ultimately help the team pursue disease management approaches that will appeal to growers and consumers alike, McComas said.

"My hope is that this grant will enable growers to use fungicides more efficiently and effectively, with savings for the environment and the growers," Fry added. "And we think this is possible."

Amanda Garris is a freelance writer in Geneva, N.Y.