Rethinking Healthcare

Potato blight and flu have much in common

Potato blight and flu have much in common

Posting in Science

The influenza germ is constantly changing, and the potato blight is capable of similar changes. Senior author Gene Nusbaum of Harvard described its ability to change as "exquisite."

In 1846 the first of my ancestors arrived in America.

The parents of John O'Donnell (right) were fleeing the Irish potato famine, which his granddaughter, my great aunt, later told me meant "all the Irish had to eat was potatoes."

In fact the crop failed due to a potato blight, whose genome scientists have just now decoded. Which turns out to have a lot in common with a disease stalking my family (and yours) today, the flu.

What it has in common is adaptability. The influenza germ is constantly changing, and the potato blight is capable of similar changes. Senior author Gene Nusbaum of Harvard described its ability to change as "exquisite."

Fay Wray thought the same thing of King Kong.

Something else about the potato blight. It's ba-ack. Phytophthora infestans, once thought to be a fungus, is in fact a water mold that thrives in cold, wet weather and can wipe out a crop in days. It's now threatening potato and tomato crops throughout the U.S.

Flu has similar adaptability. Just this week scientists have found N1H1 infecting deeper into the lungs than seasonal flu, while Israel has isolated a strain that resists Tamiflu, the most common antiviral.

By attacking this adaptability, pandemic skeptic Peter Palese of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York says, the flu virus can be controlled.

Here again the potato blight offers some clues. Nearly three-quarters of the blight's genome consists of "junk" DNA, unused sequences that evolve quickly. The working genome evolves more slowly.

Think of it in terms of your own work. If you have a lot of notes for your paper you can edit it quickly, maybe rewrite it entirely in short order. With fewer notes it's harder. Thus "junk" DNA isn't junk at all.

Now that we have its notes, Nusbaum told Nature, "I would hope that some clever plant pathologist would be able to genetically engineer resistance."

Now if we can just to the same with the flu.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure