North Carolina State University scientists will be heavily involved in a national effort to help farmers better manage a plant disease called late blight, which can decimate tomatoes and potatoes.

Jean Ristaino, a professor of plant pathology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State, and Ryan Boyles, state climatologist and director of the State Climate Office of North Carolina, which is located on North Carolina State’s Centennial Campus, are part of a $9 million, 5-year U.S. Department of Agriculture effort to give farmers better tools to use in dealing with late blight. The effort is being led by the University of California at Riverside but will involve scientists across the nation.

Ristaino said the North Carolina State effort will focus on the development of an online national late blight reporting and alert system. This system, which will show farmers late blight outbreaks across the nation, will include what is known as decision support information on how best to deal with the disease.

Late blight, which is caused by a pathogen called Phytophthora infestans, infects American tomato and potato crops every year, Ristaino explained, but various factors, including weather, determine whether the disease causes significant crop losses from year to year.

The disease was particularly bad in 2009, she added, when cooler than normal temperatures and abundant rainfall helped spread late blight. In 2009, late blight destroyed much of the tomato production in the northeast U.S.

Ristaino said growers can protect their crops from the disease if they apply fungicide prior to a disease outbreak and if they apply the correct fungicide. The system that Boyles and Ristaino are developing is designed to give farmers the information they need to protect their crops from the disease.

The state climate office will develop an online map that will use information from monitoring teams around the nation to locate late blight outbreaks.