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UT Tyler Continues Lead Investigations into Potato Epidemic

February 27, 2014

Media Contact:  Hannah Buchanan
Public Affairs Specialist
Marketing and Communications
The University of Texas at Tyler
903.565.5769 or 903.539.7196 (cell)

The University of Texas at Tyler has been awarded $50,000 to continue research on an epidemic disease affecting potatoes, Dr. Michael Odell, vice president for research and technology transfer, announced.

The funds, consisting of two grants from the 2014 Zebra Chip Specialty Crop Research Initiative, will assist Dr. Blake Bextine’s continued efforts to help suppress the potato disease known as Zebra Chip and further analyze the ‘potato psyllid’ or Bactericera cockerelli, the determined disease-causing agent.   

The leading primary investigator, Bextine is a UT Tyler associate professor of biology. In a large collaborative effort with the U.S., Mexico and countries within Central America, Bextine and others plan to develop a management plan to regulate psyllid populations through technologically advanced DNA testing and sequencing, eventually controlling Zebra Chip outbreaks and saving thousands of potato crops.

‘Zebra Chip’ causes a zig-zag appearance in the upper growth of the plant, and potato chips and fries made from affected plants have severe dark brown-streaked blemishes. The epidemic first began in the southern United States and Mexico.

 “We have noticed that psyllid populations have moved, stretching to parts of California, the Midwest and Pacific Northwest and into portions of Central America,” said Bextine, who has been researching the disease for almost 10 years.

“With collaborators and our catalog of knowledge in this area, the next step is to determine the connection between Mexican and Central American potato psyllids with those that occur in North America, especially with respect to potential insecticide resistance and the presence of Candidatus Liberibacter, which is the bacterium that causes Zebra Chip,” Bextine said.

Insects carrying specific species of the bacteria feed on the potatoes, which are then infected.

“Because insects found in southern regions are in a more temperate, year-round climate, more generations of insects are produced each year, and the availability of alternate host plants also promotes increased genetic diversity. The first signs of insecticide resistance are likely to occur within these populations and their yearly northern movement will negatively impact current and future management practices in the U.S.

“Identifying the insecticide-resistant potato psyllid populations that act as a source of the problem is imperative to reducing the initial inoculum each year and a restricting the entrance of resistant insects in the U.S. potato growing areas,” he added.

Along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, co-supporters are Frito Lay and the Texas Potato Growers group.

Both UT Tyler graduate and undergraduate students take active roles in the research within the Bextine laboratory that to date, has collectively brought nearly $2 million in research funding to the university. Serving UT Tyler since 2005, Bextine also serves as the director of research development for the UT Tyler College of Arts and Sciences. His general research interest is the development of management tactics and diagnostic techniques for insect-transmitted plant pathogens.

For more information, contact Bextine, 903.566.7323 or bbextine@uttyler.edu.

One of the 15 campuses of the UT System, UT Tyler features excellence in teaching, research, artistic performance and community service. More than 80 undergraduate and graduate degrees are available at UT Tyler, which has an enrollment of more than 7,500 high-ability students. UT Tyler offers courses at its campuses in Tyler, Longview and Palestine as well as a location in Houston.

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