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By Dan Nosowitz
It's widely acknowledged thatPhytophthora infestans, a sort of fungus-like pathogen also known as potato blight, was responsible for the mid-19th-century potato famine that reduced Ireland's population, through death and emigration, by nearly 25 percent. But scientists have just uncovered the specific strain of this pathogen through a first-of-its kind procedure--by analyzing potato plants that have been dead for more than a hundred years.
The Irish Potato Famine lasted just a few years, from around 1845 to 1852, but killed about a million people and forced the emigration of around a million more. The Irish population at that point was reliant on one specific white potato, the Irish lumper, as a primary food source for about a third of the country. Potatoes, like most other members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, eggplant), are native to the New World, not to Ireland. In the mid-19th century, travel between the New and Old World increased, bringing over new strains ofPhytophthora infestans. One of those strains eventually mutated into a killer.