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The Royal Irish Academy is delighted to welcome visiting Fullbright Scholar, Professor Jean Ristaino, who will deliver a public lecture on Tuesday 20 August.

Professor Ristaino’s lecture will explore the migrations and spread of the pathogen Phytophthora infestans which entered the shores of Ireland in 1845 and devastated the potato crop. Two years prior the same plant pathogen had caused potato blight in the north-east region of the United States. No one knew where it came from or how the plant disease could be controlled. In Ireland, the pathogen left devastation in its wake: a country of eight million lost one quarter of its population to death and emigration. The population of Ireland would never rebound.

Professor Ristaino will describe the famine years like a crime scene, investigating the victims and the culprits, and shining a light on the many detectives or ‘Sherlocks of Spuds’ who worked to identify the suspected pathogen, suggest remedies and crack the case.

The Irish potato famine pathogen, Phytophthora infestans is not a thing of the past: it still causes plant disease globally and growers in Ireland have to spray fungicides to manage the disease. Modern DNA technology has helped us track the identity of the original outbreak strain and its global migration.

Join us for a dynamic public lecture that spans the disciplines of history and science. 

This event is organised by the Academy’s Climate Change and Environmental Sciences committee in collaboration with the editorial board of Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. The lecture will be followed by a reception, which is supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.


About the Speaker

Jean Ristaino is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University. Professor Ristaino works on Phytophthora infestans, the pathogen responsible for the Irish famine. She studies modern and historic late blight outbreaks, and her work has tracked the migration of P. infestans from its ancestral home in the Andes to the US and Europe. Emergence of new Phytophthora species on horticultural and forest hosts has increased due to agricultural activities and trade. Professor Ristaino’s research in Ireland with DAFM involves deploying technology to detect P. ramorum and P. kernoviae on larch and rhododendrom, which has killed trees in in Ireland. In researching for her forthcoming book, The Potato Plague, she will also draw on archival letters and herbaria at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland for information on nineteenth-century disease outbreaks. Professor Ristaino is working with and is partially supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in this research. Her Fulbright research is also funded by the US Irish Fulbright program, the OECD Cooperative Research Fellows Program and research grants from the National Science Foundation and United States Department of Agriculture.




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