Plant diseases arguably pose the biggest threat to agriculture, exacting a dramatic economic toll and endangering the livelihoods of farmers all over the world, writes Steven Cerier in this article published by Genetic Literacy Project (GLP).
Cerier says in his article that fortunately, powerful innovations in plant genetics are inoculating globally important food crops against these devastating diseases. Such innovations include new breeding techniques (NBTs), particularly gene-editing tools like CRISPR, as well as more established breeding methods like transgenesis, used to develop GMO crops.
Collectively, these technologies are helping farmers safeguard their yields with sustainable, environmentally friendly disease-resistance measures. In developing countries this could be the difference between a profitable harvest and going hungry.
Like humans, plants have evolved an immune system that helps them fight off infections spread by insects, bacteria, viruses and fungi. But in the nonstop Darwinian struggle for survival, these microorganisms often outsmart the defenses plants muster to protect themselves. The tools of biotechnology were developed to give food crops a leg up in this struggle. Scientists can use CRISPR, for example, to delete DNA segments that make plants susceptible to infection.
Dozens of crops engineered to resist disease have already been developed and approved by regulators in the US and other countries.
Potatoes have been developed that are immune to late blight disease. Scientists in the Netherlands and Ireland have successfully carried out field trials of a disease-resistant genetically engineered potato. The new variety was created through a process of cisgenesis, in which genes from a wild potato were used to confer disease resistance on its domesticated relative.
The disease-resistant crop reduced fungicide spraying by up to 90%, and is likely to be successful because the potato selected for the trials is already widely cultivated and consumed. If approved, it’ll just have the added blight-tolerance trait.
Scientists in Uganda have also created a genetically engineered blight-resistant potato. Five years of field trials have shown the variety is “virtually 100 percent resistant to late blight disease and requires no chemical spraying,” the International Potato Center said of the research.