The stately U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., is hardly a place you’d expect to come face to face with a killer that claimed a million lives. But that’s exactly what you’ll find in the exhibit “CSI Dublin,” featuring Dr. Jean Ristaino’s research on the Irish potato famine.
Ristaino, a plant pathologist, helped unmask the true genetic identity of a disease called late blight by analyzing DNA from 150-year-old plant samples. Late blight rotted successive potato crops in the 1840s, causing widespread starvation and mass emigration from Ireland.
“CSI Dublin,” part of an exhibit called “Spuds Unearthed,” features a CNN movie about Ristaino’s work to identify the strain of P infestans responsible for the famine. She and several colleagues have spoken about their research during the exhibit’s five-month run near the U.S. capitol.
A Continuing Blight
Some 160 years later, late blight remains a threat. It captured headlines in the New York Times just last year.
“The disease in 2009 was the most severe in recent history on both tomatoes and potatoes in the Northeast United States, due to movement of the pathogen on infected tomato transplants,” Ristaino says.
She and her team have given the name “US-22” to the new genotype that was widespread. They are collaborating with the nation’s top late blight researchers at Cornell University and the University of California for funds to track the pathogen and develop plants with more stable resistance to the disease.
Once the botanic garden exhibit concludes its run near the U.S. capitol on Oct. 11, Ristaino hopes the show may go on. A possible national tour would include both the exhibit and live presentations about how plant disease research and genetic diversity can help prevent hunger.