Woodside, Queens is one of the best-kept secrets in New York City. It’s a vibrant, diverse and taco-truck-filled community nestled just east of Sunnyside, Queens — the greatest urban neighborhood in the world, where I happen to reside. Ok, maybe third greatest.
But Woodside’s secret is that it was built, in part, by a nasty little water mold.
Be my guest if you want to jump right into some recent photos, otherwise stick around for a quick-and-sciencey history lesson about the area.
In the mid-1800s, Ireland was having a rough time. And that’s putting it lightly.
Caustic social and political issues had been piling up, potato crops were failing (thanks to a nasty water mold which caused potato blight), starvation gripped most of the population and disease was spreading rampantly.
During a span of about two decades, in fact, the country lost roughly 2 million people/25 percent of its population. Half of those losses were to death, while the other half emigrated to U.S. cities such as New York City and Boston.
About a quarter of these 1 million emigrants settled into NYC, and then-Nassau county — which the Woodside and Sunnyside areas were a part of in the 1850s — took a lion’s share of that immigration action. In its heyday during the late 1800s, Woodside was about 80 percent Irish. That’s tough to gauge now, however, as the U.S. census only asks for white/black/Hispanic/Asian/other, and that whole America-as-a-melting-pot thing.*
Now about that potato crop failure, which is a huge component of the infamous Great Famine…
Officials recorded more than two dozen major Irish potato blights between the 1700s and the 1850 (when the Great Famine peaked). So it wasn’t like the problem came out of the blue, as some historical records might suggest**, and yet the mold wasn’t the sole trigger of this famine and mass emigration. But it did play a large role in teetering the Irish toward a critical point of saying “it’s time to get the hell out of here.”
Historical records show a water mold, called Phytophthora infestans, was to blame. This little guy is a mobile parasitic fungus that loves to settle in to potato leaves, then travel easily by wind and/or water into the ground where it munches potatoes into moldy, inedible goop. Not good eats, as Alton Brown would say.
And still not good eats today, in spite of our best fungicides — the parasite is responsible for eating $6.7ish billion annually in potatoes and other crops(!).
Setting aside its ability to severely piss off farmers, I think the oomycete is pretty cool organism — not only biologically, but in terms of scientific research power as well.
For the former claim, just look at the video (right). It shows a mama spore birthing little zoospore babies, hungry for starchy goodness. For the latter, poke around some recent research hinged on the critters — I count 12,000+ scientific publications since 1991 as of this posting.
Perhaps the most notable study was in 2009 by scientists from 3 dozen institutions, who sequenced the Irish potato blight strain’s genome. That investigation found the mold has 240 million base pairs in its DNA — one of the largest ever recorded for the supergroup of organisms it fits into, called Chromalveolates. By comparison, humans sport about 3 billion genetic base pairs. Pretty close, considering we’re made of trillions of cells and potato blight is a microscopic thing.
In fact, all of that extra genetic information is, the study’s authors think, primed to make Phytophthora infestans so nasty. It has evolved all sorts of tricks to evade human fungicidal countermeasures, including evolving quickly. This allows it to rapidly hop from one type of crop to another, among other things.
When I walk around Woodside I am, in a way, thankful for the potato blight for building such a cool neighborhood. The again, about a million people dying from starvation and disease is never a good thing.
Photo copyright of Dave Mosher
* Based on the number of Irish pubs, restaurants and Gaelic-speaking citizens I walk by every day, however, you can bet your Blarney stone that there’s still a very strong Irish community here.
** Irish at the time blame The United States, although the water mold may have arrived — via bat poop — from South America.