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Discovery could help protect potato crops against late blight

April 14, 2023  By Potatoes in Canada

In 2014, Charlottetown-based research scientist Bourlaye Fofana was looking for a way to make plant products healthier by adding the antioxidant selenium. Selenium is a mineral that’s found in soil, water and some foods. The micronutrient is important in the diets of humans and animals.

But, as reported by the CBC, while Fofana was investigating its nutritional benefits, his research led to a surprising discovery: When selenium was sprayed on potato leaves, it boosted protection the plants have against late blight, a disease that can quickly devastate potato, as well as tomato crops.

“Working on late blight came, I would say, by accident,” says Fofana, a geneticist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “Our interest was how to increase [the] antioxidant capacity of crops.”

‘Very surprised’

The researchers added selenium to flax, soybean and potato plants, and noticed positive results.

They then wanted to see what impact it could have in preventing disease, starting with late blight.

First, they soaked potato seeds with a selenium solution before planting them, and sprayed the leaves with it. But, they soon concluded treating only the leaves of the growing plant would be enough.

The researchers did their tests in the greenhouse, and in vitro in the lab. Fofana was so surprised by the results that he ran the tests more than once.

“We noticed that there was a very low incidence of the disease in those that were treated with different concentrations of selenium,” Fofana says. “I asked [to] repeat that three times again, because I want to make sure before we… publish that.”

In the 1840s, late blight was to blame for major European crop failures and the Irish Potato Famine, which caused widespread hunger and drove an estimated two million people to leave their homeland for North America and other destinations.

Fofana tested the selenium on two other plant pathogens in vitro, with equal success.

“We were very surprised. I was astonished with stopping the growth and sporulation of the pathogens,” he says.

While the lab tests have been successful, Fofana says he can’t try selenium in an actual field setting because the tests could release late blight spores into the environment.

Visit cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-selenium-discovery-late-blight-protection-1.6806656 for the full story.

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