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A memorial to the Irish famine in Dublin. (Courtesy of Flikr user Daz)

160 Years Later, Scientists Grow a GM Potato That Could Have Prevented the Irish Potato Famine

Genetically modified potatoes resistant to potato blight were designed in Ireland

From 1845 to 1852, the Great Hunger devastated Ireland and Scotland. A widespread outbreak of potato blight wiped out the potato crop, killing more than a million Irish people, and sending many Irish and Scots emigrating to new lands, largely Australia, Canada and the United States.

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A few days after potatoes were dug from the ground, they began to turn into a slimy, decaying, blackish "mass of rottenness." Expert panels convened to investigate the blight's cause suggested that it was the result of "static electricity" or the smoke that billowed from railroad locomotives or the "mortiferous vapours" rising from underground volcanoes. In fact, the cause was a fungus that had traveled from Mexico to Ireland.

"Famine fever"--cholera, dysentery, scurvy, typhus, and infestations of lice--soon spread through the Irish countryside. Observers reported seeing children crying with pain and looking "like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that there was little left but bones." Masses of bodies were buried without coffins, a few inches below the soil.


Today, farmers fight potato blight with fungicides. In the future, though, genetically modified potatoes resistant to the blight may finally banish the specter of the Irish potato famine. For MIT's Technology review, Daniel Loverling explores the possibility of potatoes, developed in Ireland, that are resistant to the blight.

The modified potatoes are still being tested, and are not set for widespread use, but they certainly show the potential of genetic modification in fighting famine.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Scientists Finally Pinpoint the Pathogen That Caused the Irish Potato Famine
A Brief History of the Potato

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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