Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Great Famine


Pest and pathogen losses jeopardise global food security and ever since the 19(th) century Irish famine, potato late blight has exemplified this threat. The causal oomycete pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, undergoes major population shifts in agricultural systems via the successive emergence and migration of asexual lineages. The phenotypic and genotypic bases of these selective sweeps are largely unknown but management strategies need to adapt to reflect the changing pathogen population. Here, we used molecular markers to document the emergence of a lineage, termed 13_A2, in the European P. infestans population, and its rapid displacement of other lineages to exceed 75% of the pathogen population across Great Britain in less than three years. We show that isolates of the 13_A2 lineage are among the most aggressive on cultivated potatoes, outcompete other aggressive lineages in the field, and overcome previously effective forms of plant host resistance. Genome analyses of a 13_A2 isolate revealed extensive genetic and expression polymorphisms particularly in effector genes. Copy number variations, gene gains and losses, amino-acid replacements and changes in expression patterns of disease effector genes within the 13_A2 isolate likely contribute to enhanced virulence and aggressiveness to drive this population displacement. Importantly, 13_A2 isolates carry intact and in planta induced Avrblb1, Avrblb2 and Avrvnt1 effector genes that trigger resistance in potato lines carrying the corresponding R immune receptor genes Rpi-blb1, Rpi-blb2, and Rpi-vnt1.1. These findings point towards a strategy for deploying genetic resistance to mitigate the impact of the 13_A2 lineage and illustrate how pathogen population monitoring, combined with genome analysis, informs the management of devastating disease epidemics.

Concepts: Gene, Genetics, Potato, Oomycete, Phytophthora infestans, Great Famine, Potatoes, Phytophthora


Phytophthora infestans, the cause of potato late blight, is infamous for having triggered the Irish Great Famine in the 1840s. Until the late 1970s, P. infestans diversity outside of its Mexican center of origin was low, and one scenario held that a single strain, US-1, had dominated the global population for 150 years; this was later challenged based on DNA analysis of historical herbarium specimens. We have compared the genomes of 11 herbarium and 15 modern strains. We conclude that the 19th century epidemic was caused by a unique genotype, HERB-1, that persisted for over 50 years. HERB-1 is distinct from all examined modern strains, but it is a close relative of US-1, which replaced it outside of Mexico in the 20th century. We propose that HERB-1 and US-1 emerged from a metapopulation that was established in the early 1800s outside of the species' center of diversity. DOI:

Concepts: DNA, Potato, Oomycete, Phytophthora infestans, Overpopulation, Great Famine, Potatoes, Phytophthora


Phytophthora infestans (Mont.) de Bary, the causal agent of potato late blight, was responsible for the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. Initial disease outbreaks occurred in the US in 1843, two years prior to European outbreaks. We examined the evolutionary relationships and source of the 19th-century outbreaks using herbarium specimens of P. infestans from historic (1846-1970) and more recent isolates (1992-2014) of the pathogen. The same unique SSR multilocus genotype, named here as FAM-1, caused widespread outbreaks in both US and Europe. The FAM-1 lineage shared allelic diversity and grouped with the oldest specimens collected in Colombia and Central America. The FAM-1 lineage of P. infestans formed a genetic group that was distinct from more recent aggressive lineages found in the US. The US-1 lineage formed a second, mid-20th century group. Recent modern US lineages and the oldest Mexican lineages formed a genetic group with recent Mexican lineages, suggesting a Mexican origin of recent US lineages. A survey of mitochondrial haplotypes in a larger set of global herbarium specimens documented the more frequent occurrence of the HERB-1 (type Ia) mitochondrial haplotype in archival collections from 1866-75 and 1906-1915 and the rise of the Ib mitochondrial lineage (US-1) between 1946-1955. The FAM-1 SSR lineage survived for almost 100 years in the US, was geographically widespread, and was displaced first in the mid-20th century by the US-1 lineage and then by distinct new aggressive lineages that migrated from Mexico.

Concepts: Evolution, Potato, Plant pathogens and diseases, Oomycete, Phytophthora infestans, Great Famine, Potatoes, Phytophthora


The major components of human diet both past and present may be estimated by measuring the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios (δ13C and δ15N) of the collagenous proteins in bone and tooth dentine. However, the results from these two tissues differ substantially: bone collagen records a multi-year average whilst primary dentine records and retains time-bound isotope ratios deriving from the period of tooth development. Recent studies harnessing a sub-annual temporal sampling resolution have shed new light on the individual dietary histories of our ancestors by identifying unexpected radical short-term dietary changes, the duration of breastfeeding and migration where dietary change occurs, and by raising questions regarding factors other than diet that may impact on δ13C and δ15N values. Here we show that the dentine δ13C and δ15N profiles of workhouse inmates dating from the Great Irish Famine of the 19th century not only record the expected dietary change from C3 potatoes to C4 maize, but when used together they also document prolonged nutritional and other physiological stress resulting from insufficient sustenance. In the adults, the influence of the maize-based diet is seen in the δ13C difference between dentine (formed in childhood) and rib (representing an average from the last few years of life). The demonstrated effects of stress on the δ13C and δ15N values will have an impact on the interpretations of diet in past populations even in slow-turnover tissues such as compact bone. This technique also has applicability in the investigation of modern children subject to nutritional distress where hair and nails are unavailable or do not record an adequate period of time.

Concepts: Time, Protein, Bone, Nutrition, Collagen, Famine, Isotope analysis, Great Famine


The Irish Travellers are a population with a history of nomadism; consanguineous unions are common and they are socially isolated from the surrounding, ‘settled’ Irish people. Low-resolution genetic analysis suggests a common Irish origin between the settled and the Traveller populations. What is not known, however, is the extent of population structure within the Irish Travellers, the time of divergence from the general Irish population, or the extent of autozygosity. Using a sample of 50 Irish Travellers, 143 European Roma, 2232 settled Irish, 2039 British and 6255 European or world-wide individuals, we demonstrate evidence for population substructure within the Irish Traveller population, and estimate a time of divergence before the Great Famine of 1845-1852. We quantify the high levels of autozygosity, which are comparable to levels previously described in Orcadian 1(st)/2(nd) cousin offspring, and finally show the Irish Traveller population has no particular genetic links to the European Roma. The levels of autozygosity and distinct Irish origins have implications for disease mapping within Ireland, while the population structure and divergence inform on social history.

Concepts: Republic of Ireland, Ireland, Irish Traveller, Traveler, Ethnic groups in Europe, Northern Ireland, Great Famine, Irish diaspora


As the oomycete pathogen causing potato late blight disease, Phytophthora infestans triggered the famous 19(th)-century Irish potato famine and remains the leading cause of global commercial potato crop destruction. But the geographic origin of the genotype that caused this devastating initial outbreak remains disputed, as does the New World center of origin of the species itself. Both Mexico and South America have been proposed, generating considerable controversy. Here, we readdress the pathogen’s origins using a genomic dataset encompassing 71 globally-sourced modern and historical samples of P. infestans and the hybrid species P. andina, a close relative known only from the Andean highlands. Previous studies have suggested that the nuclear DNA lineage behind the initial outbreaks in Europe in 1845 is now extinct. Analysis of P. andina’s phased haplotypes recovered eight haploid genome sequences, four of which represent a previously unknown basal lineage of P. infestans closely related to the famine-era lineage. Our analyses further reveal that clonal lineages of both P. andina and historical P. infestans diverged earlier than modern Mexican lineages, casting doubt on recent claims of a Mexican center of origin. Finally, we use haplotype phasing to demonstrate that basal branches of the clade comprising Mexican samples are occupied by clonal isolates collected from wild Solanum hosts, suggesting that modern Mexican P. infestans diversified on S. tuberosum after a host jump from a wild species and that the origins of P. infestans are more complex than was previously thought.

Concepts: Gene, Potato, Andes, Oomycete, Phytophthora infestans, Great Famine, Potatoes, Phytophthora


Plants use autophagy to safeguard against infectious diseases. However, how plant pathogens interfere with autophagy related processes is unknown. Here we show that PexRD54, an effector from the Irish potato famine pathogen Phytophthora infestans, binds host autophagy protein ATG8CL to stimulate autophagosome formation. PexRD54 depletes the autophagy cargo receptor Joka2 out of ATG8CL complexes and interferes with Joka2’s positive effect on pathogen defense. Thus a plant pathogen effector has evolved to antagonize a host autophagy cargo receptor in order to counteract host defenses.

Concepts: Immune system, Infectious disease, Microbiology, Starch, Potato, Plant pathogens and diseases, Phytophthora infestans, Great Famine


The application of DNA sequencing technology to the study of ancient DNA has enabled the reconstruction of past epidemics from genomes of historically important plant-associated microbes. Recently, the genome sequences of the potato late blight pathogen Phytophthora infestans were analyzed from 19th century herbarium specimens. These herbarium samples originated from infected potatoes collected during and after the Irish potato famine. Herbaria have therefore great potential to help elucidate past epidemics of crops, date the emergence of pathogens, and inform about past pathogen population dynamics. DNA preservation in herbarium samples was unexpectedly good, raising the possibility of a whole new research area in plant and microbial genomics. However, the recovered DNA can be extremely fragmented resulting in specific challenges in reconstructing genome sequences. Here we review some of the challenges in computational analyses of ancient DNA from herbarium samples. We also applied the recently developed linkage method to haplotype reconstruction of diploid or polyploid genomes from fragmented ancient DNA.

Concepts: DNA, Bacteria, Human genome, Potato, Oomycete, Phytophthora infestans, Great Famine, Potatoes


Phytophthora infestans is a destructive plant pathogen best known for causing the disease that triggered the Irish potato famine and remains the most costly potato pathogen to manage worldwide. Identification of P. infestan’s elusive center of origin is critical to understanding the mechanisms of repeated global emergence of this pathogen. There are two competing theories, placing the origin in either South America or in central Mexico, both of which are centers of diversity of Solanum host plants. To test these competing hypotheses, we conducted detailed phylogeographic and approximate Bayesian computation analyses, which are suitable approaches to unraveling complex demographic histories. Our analyses used microsatellite markers and sequences of four nuclear genes sampled from populations in the Andes, Mexico, and elsewhere. To infer the ancestral state, we included the closest known relatives Phytophthora phaseoli, Phytophthora mirabilis, and Phytophthora ipomoeae, as well as the interspecific hybrid Phytophthora andina. We did not find support for an Andean origin of P. infestans; rather, the sequence data suggest a Mexican origin. Our findings support the hypothesis that populations found in the Andes are descendants of the Mexican populations and reconcile previous findings of ancestral variation in the Andes. Although centers of origin are well documented as centers of evolution and diversity for numerous crop plants, the number of plant pathogens with a known geographic origin are limited. This work has important implications for our understanding of the coevolution of hosts and pathogens, as well as the harnessing of plant disease resistance to manage late blight.

Concepts: Scientific method, Potato, Andes, Plant pathogens and diseases, Phytophthora infestans, Great Famine, Phytophthora, Plant pathology


Responsible for the Irish potato famine of 1845-49, the oomycete pathogen Phytophthora infestans caused persistent, devastating outbreaks of potato late blight across Europe in the 19th century. Despite continued interest in the history and spread of the pathogen, the genome of the famine-era strain remains entirely unknown. Here we characterize temporal genomic changes in introduced P. infestans. We shotgun sequence five 19th-century European strains from archival herbarium samples-including the oldest known European specimen, collected in 1845 from the first reported source of introduction. We then compare their genomes to those of extant isolates. We report multiple distinct genotypes in historical Europe and a suite of infection-related genes different from modern strains. At virulence-related loci, several now-ubiquitous genotypes were absent from the historical gene pool. At least one of these genotypes encodes a virulent phenotype in modern strains, which helps explain the 20th century’s episodic replacements of European P. infestans lineages.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Genome, Potato, Oomycete, Phytophthora infestans, Great Famine