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Potato Pathogens and Biosecurity

Contact: Laurie Connell (207) 581-2470; David Munson (207) 581-3777

ORONO, Maine — Potato wart, a highly contagious fungal disease of potatoes, can not only ruin a potato crop, it can destroy the agricultural value of the soil it infects for decades. So virulent that it has been listed as a threat to the nation’s biosecurity by the federal government, potato wart has had a devastating impact on European agriculture and can be found just beyond Maine’s borders in isolated areas of Newfoundland, Canada.                        

UMaine researchers Laurie Connell and Rosemary Smith are combining their expertise in molecular biology and sensor development to help combat the dangerous disease. Utilizing a four-year, $800,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture Biosecurity Program, Connell and Smith are working with Steven Woods of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to create a fast and effective device for detecting potato wart in soil.

The mobile, hand-held sensor currently being developed will use groundbreaking techniques in nanotechnology to identify the RNA sequence specific to the potato wart pathogen, providing faster, more accurate results than the field identification techniques currently in use. The new sensor, which utilizes a bridge of gold nanoparticles that reacts to specific molecular configurations, could provide researchers with an important new tool for detecting a broad range of potential toxins and pathogens in the field.

Connell and Smith are currently developing the specialized surfaces and attachment methods required for the nanoparticles and streamlining the process for extracting the potato wart pathogen from the soil. The project promises to greatly improve the chances of early detection of the disease, which is critical to its control.

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