Researchers battle pesto pestilence
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Fungus amongus

Researchers battle pesto pestilence

Biologists at Bar-Ilan University work to breed fungus-resistant basil plants

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Basil plants (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons, Castielli)
Basil plants (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons, Castielli)

Pasta goes well with pesto or mushrooms, but one fungus doesn’t bode well for basil lovers. For that reason researchers at Bar-Ilan University are working to engineer a strain of basil resistant to the downy mildew fungus plaguing crops in Israel and worldwide.

Professor Yigal Cohen, head of the phytopathological laboratory at Bar-Ilan’s biology department, told Maariv on Monday that the fungus has devastated basil crops across Israel, threatening the country’s strategic pesto supplies.

Basil constitutes half of the herbs that Israel exports — an average of 5,000 tons per harvest worth €50 million ($66 million) per year.

The basil fungus has plagued the herb worldwide for several years, reached the US and Canada in 2007, and only reached Israel last year. It was believed to have been blown or transported to Israel.

The disease causes the leaves of the plant to yellow and to develop black spots until they are totally dried out, Dr. Nativ Dudai of the Agricultural Research Administration said.

“Every attempt worldwide to create strains resistant to the scourge has not been successful,” Dudai said. The Bar-Ilan labs have begun researching the manner in which the fungus disseminates and the development of varieties of basil that would be immune to the deadly plague, a process that is estimated to take three years. Should it be successful, the fungus-resistant strains could be sold to other countries.

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