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Scientists find a 'bio-bandage' for banged-up potatoes

To test a biocontrol for dry rot, plant pathologist David Schisler "bandages" a wounded potato with a mixture of bacteria and fungus. (Photo by Scott Bauer.)

By Jan Suszkiw

Agricultural Research Service

There’s nothing like hot, creamy mashed potatoes with some butter sliding off the side. But maybe you’ve noticed that while peeling those potatoes, Mom or Dad ended up throwing some out because of a black, crusty-looking rot inside.

One culprit is called the dry rot fungus. It usually grows inside the spuds by entering nicks on their skin. These small cuts happen when potatoes are dug up in the field or trucked off to storage houses.

Most potatoes with dry rot are removed from market long before consumers buy them. But the U.S. potato industry is forced to foot the bill for millions of dollars in yearly losses.

Researchers are hoping to keep the fungus out of potatoes by spraying them with a kind of biological “bandage.” Normally, chemicals called fungicides are used. But lately, the dry rot fungus has become immune to the chemicals’ effect.

To tackle the problem, Patricia Slininger and David Schisler have resorted to spraying the spuds with certain kinds of Pseudomonas (say “sue-doe MOAN-us”) and other bacteria.

Why bacteria? First, they’re the fungus’ natural rivals. Second, they like to grow on (colonize) areas where potato skins have been damaged. Third, the bacteria release natural antibiotics that stop the fungus from infecting the spud and rotting it.

Last, the bacteria are harmless to both potatoes and people, says Slininger, the research leader for the Agricultural Research Service’s Crop Bioprotection Research Unit in Peoria, Illinois. Schisler is a plant pathologist there.

Other than being a bio-bandage, some of the bacteria help stop sprouting. The sprouts grow out of small lumps, called “eyes,” on the potato’s skin.

Some of the bacteria can stop sprouting by as much as 77 percent. That’s pretty good compared to CPIC, the shorthand name for a chemical sprout stopper that’s used on about half the nation’s potato crop.

CIPC stalls sprouting longer than the bacteria. But the chemical’s use has raised environmental safety concerns.

With a helping hand from science, the bacteria may soon offer a nature-based solution to both potato dry rot and sprouting.

Date: 8/25/2014


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