Turns out the potato famine was devastating and killed millions of people.
The good news is! Scientists are working on a modified potato that is resistant to late blight (the cause of the famine), so nothing like that will ever happen again.
Here's a short but fun explanation of how RNAi works:
But these potatoes aren’t just good for Mother Nature. They’re also good for us. According to National Geographic, Innate potatoes contain 70% less of an amino acid called asparagine. When exposed to high temperatures, asparagine transforms into the cancer-causing compound acrylamide.
The next step is eliminating vulnerability to blight -- and that's exactly what scientists are doing.
According to the BBC (who, for what it's worth, is not secretly owned by Monsanto),
"The speed with which [blight] takes hold and the devastating impacts on the crop make it the number one threat to six million tonnes of potatoes produced in the UK each year.
Farmers have to be continuously on their guard and need to spray up to 15 times a season to protect against the disease...
In the third year of the trial, all the non-GM potatoes became infected with late blight by August while the modified vegetables remained fully resistant to the end of the experiment.
There was also a difference in yield, with the GM variety producing double the amount of tubers.
The scientists say that since the potatoes are grown from tubers rather than seeds, they are sterile and the issue of GM pollen escaping into the wild does not arise."
Surprised? Despite the myths you may have heard, many GMOs reduce pesticide use, not increase them. (Additionally, despite what you may have heard, organic famers use pesticides, too.)
To those who understand science, this is super exciting. I love seeing laboratory learning applied to life-saving innovations. And, as Professor Jonathan Jones, of the Sainsbury Laboratory, said in a 2014 interview, "I think it is better to control disease with genetics than with chemistry."
As a reminder to those who aren’t scientists: there is scientific consensus about the safety of most GMOs – though, obviously, each genetically modified organism should be evaluated individually. Saying “all GMOs are dangerous/safe” is kind of like saying “all chemicals are dangerous/safe.”
Everything we eat is a chemical – and obviously some foods are very healthy for us because of the chemicals in them, while some chemicals can kill us.
To further ease your mind, here’s an interactive tutorial about how RNAi works, produced by PBS.
Want to know more? Don't miss:
- Scientists have invented a way to end malaria, saving millions of African lives. But will the Western world allow it?
- Why Connoisseurs Love Itchy, Burning Throats - The Science of Acquired Taste
- The Surprising Trait that Carbs and Valium Have In Common - The Science of Stress Eating
And, of course, don't miss the Leland Stanford Junior Marching Band's infamous Spotted Owl Show, in which OWL turns into AWOL. (I couldn't find the Fighting Irish video, but this one's just as good.)