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Kenyan scientists work toward disease free potatoes

Dr Magembe, a molecular biologist based at the International Potato Center in Nairobi is among a growing number of African scientists who are providing technological solutions to problems affecting the African farmer, and these solutions are being developed right within Africa.

“Late blight is the most devastating disease for potato,” said Dr Magembe, a molecular biologist based at the International Potato Center, in Nairobi. Through genetic engineering, scientists like him have identified desirable genes for conferring resistance to late blight from potato relatives growing in the wild in Central and South America, the original home of the potato plant.

The disease, caused by Phytophthora infestans fungus, usually strikes in the colder and rainy months of the growing season. “The disease causes massive losses among potato farmers,” Magembe said. “Our estimation is between 30 to 70 per cent loss in yields.”

Another devastating disease is bacterial wilt, which is mostly spread through infected seeds. Soils that are contaminated with the pathogen could also contribute to spread of the disease. “With bacterial wilt spraying with chemicals is not effective, so it’s harder to manage. Once your seed is infected, the disease is sure to take over. There is no remedy.”

Magembe and other researchers are seeking to counter these diseases by improving superior varieties with strong resistance to the pathogens.


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