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The Silent Potato Killer

It seems researchers at the University of California, Riverside, have identified a genetic weapon in the greatest crime against potatoes in recent memory.

The group published a paper in Nature Genetics last week exploring how molds in the genus Phytophthora — a critter responsible for infesting potatoes and other crops, like soybeans, tomatoes and avocados — interfere with plants' normal RNA silencing.

The team reports that by exuding proteins called effectors that inhibit the biogenesis of small RNAs, the invaders interfere with plants' ability to fight infection. Unable to resist disease, the crops are overrun.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Phytopthora molds are responsible for "more than $6 billion in worldwide losses of potatoes annually, and about $2 billion in annual losses of soybeans," and lead to Ireland's Great Potato Famine, which caused the death of 1 million people in the mid-19th century.

According to the university, the researchers, led by Wenbo Ma, are now trying to breed resistant crops by manipulating the RNA silencing pathway to ward against Phytophthora's effector proteins.

And the research may also have implications for diseases in animals or even in humans. According to the group, pathogens that infect animals, like malaria, also produce effector proteins similar to those used by Phytophthora.