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This spud's for YOU: CFIA's role in protecting Canadian potatoes

Mmmm. How delicious is a plate of fresh cut french fries? Add a few cheese curds and a little gravy and you have the perfect mix of the quintessential Canadian cuisine – poutine! The options for potatoes do not stop there - from mashed potatoes, to baked potatoes and of course the potato chip; potatoes are a feast of delight for many!

With almost 400 potato seed varieties registered in Canada, no doubt everyone has a favourite potato dish. More than just a palate pleaser, the potato is a big part of Canada's economy, and not just in Prince Edward Island! Potatoes are the largest vegetable crop in Canada accounting for almost 30 percent of all vegetable receipts and worth over $1.2 billion in 2016.Footnote 1 The power of the potato is not something that should be taken lightly and its protection is a role the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) takes very seriously. Plant health might not be what first comes to mind when thinking about public safety and security but there are several plant pathogens that could cause catastrophic consequences for the Canadian economy.

With a mix of keen observation and savvy science skills, the teams at the CFIA work together to get to the root of various incidents that sprout up all over Canada - the following is just one example.

It started in the bustling streets of Toronto. An inspector from the CFIA picked up a few boxes of potatoes on sale at a local market. They had been brought in from Bangladesh and appeared to have questionable characteristics. The intercepted tubers (another term for potato) were delivered to the Charlottetown Laboratory where scientists with specialties in the study of bacteria, viruses, roundworms, and fungi, got to work! They analyzed the samples for the presence of potato diseases and put the puzzling potatoes through routine diagnostic testing and a potato post-entry quarantine program which is used for potato products that are being imported into Canada.

The diagnostic testing performed at the Charlottetown lab uses very modern molecular methods. In this case, Ralstonia solanacearum race 3 biovar2 (R3b2) was detected – a serious bacterial pathogen that causes wilt on many crops, including potato. While not harmful to people or animals, it is one of the world's most destructive invasive bacterial species affecting plant health. The R3b2 strain can cause potato brown rot, and although it is not present in Canada, it is a regulated pest here and in many other countries. It is even classified in the US 2002 Bioterrorism Act as a "select agent". If established in Canada, this kind of invasive pest could devastate our potato crops. For this reason, our scientists at the Charlottetown lab are always hard at work using modern molecular biology and multiple tests to confirm whether potatoes are carrying the destructive R3b2 pathogen.

In addition, the seized potatoes from the market were planted in isolation at the laboratory in order to grow more plant tissue for extracting RNA, (ribonucleic acid). Like DNA, RNA is a genetic material found in every living cell. After the potato plants sprouted, the RNA was collected and used for further complex testing. The RNA was used to perform Next Generation Sequencing analysis, a faster way to sequence DNA and RNA within a given sample. This kind of molecular testing was used to identify and classify any viruses that may be carried by these tubers. Over 300 million reads were obtained and compared against potato genome sequencing data. Many of the reads were unknown and had to be validated through a more complex testing and compared to all known sequences in an international reference database called GenBank at the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The final result showed, in detail, which viruses had been detected, and resulted in potatoes from that market being seized and destroyed to prevent risks to the Canadian potato industry.

Cases like this, although rare in Canada, are found thanks to the diligence of the CFIA. The Charlottetown Lab has highly skilled diagnostic teams who are prepared for all types of testing and the lab's scientific group has extensive knowledge and advanced technology like Next Generation Sequencing equipment for precise and specific identification. Collaboration between inspectors, diagnosticians, scientists and everyone working across the CFIA every day keeps Canada's plants, animals, food and environment safe for Canadians.

Want to learn more about the work of the CFIA's scientists? Check out our blog, Cultivating Science.

Learn more about the Charlottetown Laboratory and other CFIA Laboratories.
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