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Michael Coffey on the Discovery Channel


UC Riverside Plant Pathologist on Discovery Channel This Week

Michael Coffey will discuss the pathogen that resulted in the Irish Potato Famine

(September 2, 2003)

Michael Coffey, plant pathologist at UC Riverside, will appear in a program to be aired on the Discovery Channel this week.

Michael Coffey, plant pathologist at UC Riverside, will appear in a program to be aired on the Discovery Channel this week.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- (www.ucr.edu) -- Michael Coffey, professor in the department of plant pathology at UC Riverside, will appear in a program to be aired on the Discovery Channel this week. The title of the program is “Famine to Freedom — The Great Irish Journey” and is part of the “Moments in Time” series. The program will focus on the pathogen Phytophthora infestans and the Irish Potato Famine. The show will air on Wednesday, Sept. 3, at 9:00 p.m. and midnight, and on Saturday, Sept. 6, at noon.

In focusing on the Potato Famine, the program will cover the historic events, the science and discovery, the archaeology and the social impact and consequences of Late Blight, the disease that in the mid-19th century devastated the Irish farmland of its potato crop and drastically changed the social and cultural structure of Ireland. The Famine also spurred waves of immigration to the United States.

“Phytophthora means plant destroyer,” explained Coffey. “The pathogen Phytophthora infestans has been the focus of much research both on its control and its use as a biological warfare weapon. It attacks both potato and tomato and is the major threat to production everywhere in the world that they are grown.”

Potato is the fourth most important food crop in the world. Tomato is the number one vegetable crop in California. “About 10 years ago new more aggressive strains of Phytophthora infestans emerged,” said Coffey. “The modern site-specific pesticides used to control the disease were no longer effective against these aggressive pesticide-insensitive strains. Crop losses worldwide were measured in billions of dollars. Partial control was regained by resorting to old methods involving the spraying of the old generation of protectant pesticides developed in the 1940s. But these materials are detrimental to the environment.”

The California Tomato Commission funded Coffey in the early 1990s for eight years to find durable, non-strain specific resistance to Late Blight in wild tomatoes. He found very high resistance to all known strains in a selection of the wild species Lycopersicon hirsutum. In 1999 he was invited by the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC), a US State Department supported initiative, to become a foreign collaborator with Russian scientists working on biological warfare — specifically on the use of Phytophthora Infestans as a potential agent to destroy crops — in order to convert their expertise to peaceful usages.

“My main role has been to study the genetic variation in the Russian population of Phytophthora infestans on potato and tomato using molecular techniques,” Coffey said. “Potato is the staple food of the Russians. In Russia both potato and tomato are subject to huge losses — 60 to 80 percent — due to Late Blight.”

Since 1981, Coffey has maintained the World Phytophthora Collection at UC Riverside. “This is the only major resource of this most important of plant pathogens,” he said. “My research over the years has aimed at developing our basic knowledge of the biology and genetic diversity of these destructive microbes.”

The UC Riverside Department of Plant Pathology is committed to conducting research on the basic biology of plant pathogens; developing methods for the control of plant diseases; providing a quality education to its students; and providing expert advice on plant diseases to the citizens of California and the world. The department has maintained a strength in the study of diseases of citrus, field crops, vegetables, ornamental plants, turfgrass, and subtropical trees. Many faculty in the department have close interactions with growers and farm advisors throughout California and the world. Graduate students in the department have the opportunity to learn about a broad range of disciplines including molecular and classical genetics, biochemistry, botany, and disease diagnosis.

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The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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