Koltata: A Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) team, which came down to Bengal to study blight in potato, flagged off concerns that strains of the disease could be used as a weapon of bio-terror.
The team arrived after a study by the West Bengal State University (WBSU) found 19 new strains of the disease, some of which could kill off an entire field of the crop in a matter of 48 hours.
The university’s research got published in this month’s edition of ‘Nature’, the prestigious science journal. Blight is caused by a water mold, a micro organism that can also affect tomato and some other plants. Infected potatoes appear shrunken on the outside and corky and rotted inside.
Potato is consumed as the staple vegetable in a wide swathe of the country and Bengal, with around 1 crore tonnes a year, accounts for about a quarter of the entire country’s produce. This is why, scientists say, apprehensions of a dip in Bengal’s production — because of possible bio-terror — are being treated with so much importance.
The DRDO team has indicated that certain deadly strains of the disease might be deliberately introduced. “It will be difficult for me to reveal much about our interactions with the DRDO team because of the obvious security reasons,” WBSU botany department head Sanjoy Guha Roy, who led the study, said. “All I can tell you is that they are looking at these strains and their killer potential as a possible bio-terror attack route and that such strains might be deliberately introduced in Bengal and parts of eastern India, the potato bowl of the country, by an ‘enemy’ as part of its terror tactics.” Prompt bio-security measures need to be taken, he added.
West Bengal State University (WBSU) botany department head Sanjoy Guha Roy said: “The DRDO is now willing to collaborate with us since we are also developing certain security tools to fight the pathogens.”
The research was conducted in collaboration with global blight disease experts: W E Fry of Cornell University and David Cooke of the James Hutton Institute in the UK.
“What perhaps sets our research apart is that we have been able to pinpoint all 19 new strains of blight, which have changed most of their original properties and have now emerged far stronger killers than what they were before 2013-14, Guha Roy said.
“Before this, it was assumed that blight was a disease without much variation and affected crops across regions uniformly. We have been able to prove that there are regional variations and, with every passing year, the different strains are changing their characteristics rapidly to become more virulent.
DRDO scientists feel this can threaten the country’s food security,” he added.
The WBSU scientists (Guha Roy was assisted by PhD student Tanmoy Dey) have compared the characteristics of the Indian strains to the mother database at James Hutton Institute. “We have arrived at conclusions about the novelty of the Indian strains,” Guha Roy added.