As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the public is coming to appreciate anew one of the most basic tenets of molecular biology: the breathtaking power of an organism that is invisible to the naked eye.
The coronavirus, after all, is not the only microbe to have interfered with the processes that we rely upon to sustain life and society. And humans are not the only organisms that host pathogens — the “bad” microbes that do us harm.
In an article for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Weinberg College molecular biologist Curt Horvath and 2Blades Foundation president Diana Horvath explain the parallels between viruses that infect humans and pathogens that destroy the crops that become our food.
Both are capable of causing abundant misery and death — as demonstrated by the potato blight that caused widespread starvation in Ireland in the 1840s. The blight stemmed from the oomycete phytophthora infestans, a water mold that was inadvertently transported by ship to Ireland in the 1840s.
Potatoes are still subject to blight diseases, and they aren’t the only ones. “Other main food crops — corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice — are also victim to pathogens which attack with the same vigor as COVID-19,” the Horvaths note.
Similarly, a rust fungi has been attacking wheat since at least the Roman Empire. Such fungal diseases can produce spores that can travel for thousands of miles to attack crops elsewhere in the world. Like viruses, these pathogens can recombine and mutate to create new threats.
The authors stress that more research is needed — immediately — to mitigate these inevitable risks. The Horvaths conclude:
“The cost of such research is an infinitesimal fraction of the $8 trillion governments have spent in just the last two months to stimulate the global economy and protect families from COVID-19’s economic harm. Thus, biological research on microbial threats to human and plant life is an insurance policy for our survival and success on this planet.
“We can pay a little now, or assuredly we will pay a lot more later.”