Published online: Aug 08, 2000
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A Monte Vista, CO, 16-year-old has drawn state and national interest by coming up with a school science project that could lead to the end of potato blight.

Located in the heart of the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and its $100 million potato industry, Milena Pastore of Monte Vista High School conceived the idea of using fleas to fight blight.

She chose one of 6,000 flea species collectively called collembola. When the fleas were placed in a petri dish containing spores of three potato diseases, they ate all of them but preferred early blight.

Blight (late and early) is the most devastating of all potato fungal pathogens and caused the great Irish Potato Famine in Europe in 1845-47. It is now causing potato growers around the world hundreds of millions of dollars for control products and lost production.

Pastore's award-winning project entitled, "Welcome to the Collembola Café," drew the attention of Colorado State University Extension Potato Specialist Richard Zink. "She provided some interesting insight into an unusual relationship that exists in nature. Her practical applications are far-reaching," Zink stated.

Zink believes she hit on a role bugs can play in keeping balance in nature. Both Zink and Dr. John Moore at the University of Northern Colorado, who supplied the fleas, have suggested she submit a report to scientific journals. Zink says it is too soon to say that Pastore's work with the "springtail" fleas and early blight can be applied to the more devastating late blight fungus.

The project not only took first place in the San Luis Valley Science Fair, but the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair at CSU in Fort Collins, and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair held in Detroit. In Michigan, her project competed against 1,200 entries from 40 countries

She also received an international award from the American Phytopathological Society, which studies plant diseases.