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Lethbridge instructor receives funding for study that looks at preventing late blight in potatoes

Posted on June 9, 2015 by 40 Mile Commentator

By Garrett Simmons
Southern Alberta Newspapers
A Lethbridge College instructor and researcher has received funding to support an applied-research project to keep Alberta potato crops free of the devastating disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine.
Dr. Melanie Kalischuk, who teaches in the Environmental Sciences program at Lethbridge College, received a total of $191,000 from the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA), the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund (ACIDF) and support from Lethbridge College and the college’s Tiffin Endowment fund. The money will be used to continue to support Kalischuk’s efforts to develop advanced warning systems to prevent the spread of Phytophthora infestans, or “late blight,” and other air-borne pathogens that harm potato crops.
“If growers have early warning that the late blight pathogen is eminent, with probable emergence from backyard gardens or compost piles, then they can work to eliminate the contamination before it spreads,” Kalischuk said. “If we can again eliminate late blight in Alberta, growers can reduced the amount of fungicide they need to apply, which is estimated to cost up to $1.5 million every two weeks. It also guarantees a superior crop and product.”
Kalischuk had started research on this project a year ago and received initial support from the PGA and ACIDF to begin her work. Because of the success of the first year of the project and industry’s interest in her findings, she reapplied for additional funding.
“This will allow her to expand the project and provide weekly reporting,” said Jay Anderson, project manager at the PGA. “She will be able to have more students working with her and collect even more data. This is one of the bigger projects we’ve been involved in, and it is a great example of public and private organizations working together to help solve a problem. It’s a great collaboration.”
Doug Walkey, executive director of ACIDF, added this is a valuable partnership for everyone involved.
“Melanie is a talented researcher and we are glad to be able to work with her,” he said. “Even more exciting is working with Lethbridge College, with their focus on training students to support the food production industries.”
The main goal of Kalischuk’s project is to reduce, eliminate and eradicate late blight from Alberta. Kalischuk will work to achieve that goal in a number of ways, including by developing an expanded network of traps that monitor the late-blight pathogen, by providing advanced warning and data on the late-blight pathogen in a timely manner, by reducing or providing information to tailor the use of fungicides, and by helping develop action plans for growers and the public to minimize the risk of the late-blight pathogen.
“Pathogens are a natural component of a healthy ecosystem,” explained Kalischuk, who recently completed her PhD in biomolecular science at the University of Lethbridge. “However, with the combination of a susceptible host and the optimal environmental conditions for the pathogen, the amount of the pathogen in an area can become abundant and can drastically reduce crop yields.”
At one time, Alberta was designated as being free from late blight. However, as the spores move by water and wind, the pathogen returned to Alberta in 2012 and devastated many crops. According to Kalischuk, precision monitoring and improved sensitive detection will allow the potato industry to identify the source of the pathogen, ultimately leading to reducing or eliminating it from Alberta crops.
“Melanie’s applied research project really illustrates how collaboration can benefit everyone from backyard gardeners to major producers to the students and colleagues working in environmental sciences here at the college,” said Dr. Sandy Vanderburgh, dean of the Centre for Applied Arts and Sciences at Lethbridge College. “Her work is an important part of the college’s efforts to expand our activity in applied research to meet economic and social needs.”
Kalischuk’s research is supported by processors including Lamb Weston, McCain Foods, Cavendish Farms, PepsiCo-Frito Lay and Old Dutch Foods, industry partners including Crop Production Services, Promax Agronomy, the Potato Growers of Alberta and other industry collaborators and governmental partners including the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Lethbridge College and the college’s Tiffin Endowment fund.

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