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Cause of Irish Potato Famine discovered

Potato famine350
One of the ancient plant samples used by scientists to uncover the cause of the Great Famine

SCIENTISTS have used 19th century plant samples to uncover the cause of the Great Famine in Ireland.

The newly discovered pathogen is believed to have triggered the potato blight that spread through Ireland from 1845.

In the following decade, as people around the country discovered that their staple food had been turned into an inedible mush, one million people died from starvation and disease while two million were forced into exile.

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More than 150 years later, the Irish population remains at three-quarters of pre-famine levels.

It had long been known that the fungus-like infection Phytophthora infestans was behind an Gorta Mór.

But only by consulting potato plant leaves as old as 170-years could a team of molecular biologists from Europe and the US, led by The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, discover the real cause.

Using high-tech methods of DNA sequencing, they were able to pinpoint the exact structure of the pathogen’s DNA.

The scientists concluded that the strain, called HERB-1, is different to the culprits of contemporary blights and is now extinct.

Samples used in the study, published in the open-access scientific journal eLife, came from Ireland, Britain, Europe and North America and had been preserved in London’s Kew Gardens as well as the Botanical State Collection in Munich.

The scientists now believe that their research can open new avenues of research into the evolution of pathogens and how human activity impacts the spread of disease.

“What is for certain is that these findings will greatly help us to understand the dynamics of emerging pathogens,” said Kentaro Yoshida from The Sainsbury Laboratory.

“This type of work paves the way for the discovery of many more treasures of knowledge hidden in herbaria.”


Niall O Sullivan

Niall O’Sullivan is a reporter at The Irish Post. You can follow him on @Niall_IrishPost on Twitter

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3 comments on “Cause of Irish Potato Famine discovered”

  1. Ben O'Hanlon

    It was not a famine as there was plenty of food other than potatoes. The British government stood idly by and let millions of Irish die in what is now being called genocide.

    I've attached a link as a source.

  2. father mayeye

    something we don't hear too often from the british government, when they keep apologising for all the other countrys of the world they pillaged.why not start with the nearest country for a change ?!

  3. Patrick Geary

    Reguarding Joe Horgan's article about "Plastic Paddies". I was going to write the same list myself. He beat me to it. I must admit to feeling emotional reading it. The list could go on.
    As I write this I am watching the Ireland-England football match. It appears that some of the English players have Irish names. Could they be "Plastic Englishmen". I think "Irishness" is a state of mind. Not just a country. It's when hear some music,something stirs inside. When I go to Ireland I feel I'm home even though I've never lived there. It's a feeling of belonging. It's Family. If you're a "Plastic Paddy" you know what I mean.


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