New York student Benjy Firester won a $250,000 science prize last month for his mathematical model on the spread of late blight - the plant pathogen that sparked the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s. His model could be used to prevent crop damage in the future based .
Late blight causes "billions of dollars of damage and epidemics all over the world and this can all be stopped if farmers had the adequate information as to how and when the disease spreads," Firester told Reuters on Monday (April 9).
"Within just a few days, it can destroy an entire field and it can mutate very quickly and really get out of hand," he said. "And that's why there are no current models to predict it because it's really so awful to predict because of how quickly it spreads. So it's really important that farmers are stopping the disease in the beginning of its progression before it reaches epidemic levels where it's unstoppable through any methods."
Using disease data and weather patterns gathered from farmers in Israel, Firester was able to predict where the spores from the late blight genome would spread. Farmers can use his program to input their own data and track spores in the wind, apply fungicides at the proper time and "once it tells them they're at risk, they should be spraying ideally in the night or sometime before the morning, because the morning is when the spores are in the air," he said. "So it's a day-to-day system, really."
The late blight genome behind the Irish potato famine has been such a formidable foe because it's loaded with extra DNA that allows it to quickly adapt to overcome any defense the host plant might mount. Nearly 75 percent of the genome is filled with repetitive DNA that appears to evolve quickly, allowing for the rapid development of genes that can attack plant hosts.
The disease, spread by spores, remains a threat to global food security. In the United States, it is currently killing potato and tomato plants in home gardens from Maine to Ohio and threatening commercial and organic farms.
It causes large mold-ringed olive-green or brown spots on leaves and blackened stems and can wipe out a crop in days.
Beating out 1,800 seniors from 555 high schools, the 18-year-old Hunter College High School student's project, "Modeling the Spatio-Temporal Dynamics of Phytophthora infestans at a Regional Scale," took home the top prize at the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search, founded and produced by Society for Science & the Public since 1942. His paper is published in Plant Pathology, an international journal edited by the British Society for Plant Pathology.
Firester will join his sister Kalia, who was runner-up at the talent search three years ago, at Harvard University in the fall.