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UT Tyler researchers battle potato epidemic

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TYLER (KYTX) - A bacteria infecting potatoes worldwide is affecting the food we eat, and putting farmers in dire economic situations.

Some of the main researchers trying to fix this problem are right here in East Texas. The UT Tyler researchers just got a huge new grant to continue working on this issue.

UT Tyler Associate Biology Professor Dr. Blake Bextine has been studying zebra chips for eight years now.

"Zebra Chip is caused by a bacterial pathogen which affects the appearance of potatoes," he says.

If you've ever eaten a potato chip that had brown circles or lines running through it, that's most likely caused by this bacteria.

No need to worry! Those brown streaks won't cause your body any harm.

"The chips are safe," Bextine says. "They're not dangerous. You can eat them, they're delicious as always."

The effects of this bacteria are strictly economical, but still very serious. The epidemic has caused lots of potato growers around the country to lose 70 - 90 percent of their crop because of this. 

The problem started in Mexico, moved to South Texas, and is spreading to Canada, Central America, and now the Pacific Northwest.

"As we start finding this pathogen in third world countries it will become a bigger issue with famine and human health," Bextine says.

That's why Bextine and his team of student researchers have received $50,000 more in grants to continue fighting this issue.

"At this point we understand the biology of the pest and the pathogen. We're actually able to put control into place where growers can lessen the effects of this problem," Bextine says.

So what's causing the bacteria to spread? The culprits are tiny insects called potato psyllids.

Bextine has been an integral part of figuring this out, which is why the USDA and Texas A&M are so heavily relying on him for further research.

"This is an emerging problem that has great impact worldwide. The expansion of the range of Zebra Chip. So by mitigating the problem, we are essentially improving the world," Bextine says.
It's a project he hopes will make East Texans proud.

When this research started years ago, the federal government awarded the entire force of researchers working on it $6 million.

This $50,000 grant goes only to Bextine and his researchers here in East Texas. 

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