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Gin and Tonics at Risk from Foreign Invader

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Next time you have a gin and tonic, you might appreciate it a bit more. Gin gets its prominent flavor from junipers, and the plant is now under attack.

A fungus-like organism called phytophthora austrocedrae has been spotted infecting juniper plants and spreading throughout Northern Britain and Scotland.

The pathogen, whose first name literally translates to “plant destroyer,” is part of the same family as the pest responsible for the 19th-century Irish potato famine. Sarah Green, a scientist working with the Research Agency of the Forest Commission in the U.K., says it typically spreads through either groundwater or via streams.

“It attacks primarily through the root or stem, but can also penetrate through the bark and branches, as well,” Green told ABC News.

While it relies on water as its main mode of transmission, the organism can also hitch a ride on both animals and people. The Lake District, one of Britain’s national parks, is one of the most badly affected areas because wandering visitors can inadvertently spread the disease.

Juniper populations across the U.K. were already on the decline. The bushes themselves can be older than a century, but the seeds they produce don’t often sprout into new plants.  Eighty-five percent of juniper sites don’t have any plants younger than 5, according to Plantlife, a charity dedicated to preserving the country’s native vegetation.

This particular species of phytophthora has also been spotted in Argentina and Chile. Some people believe the juniper outbreak seen today originated in South America, but Green disagrees.

“[The two] have distinctly different DNA,” she said. “We think it came from another location.”

Where that other location might be is still unknown.

Gin companies apparently don’t often get their junipers from the U.K., but phytophthora could eventually make its way outside the country.

“Personally, I find it hard to imagine that we’re the only country in the world where this is coming on juniper,” Green said.

Determining how the organism first came to the country could be key in ensuring the safety of gimlets, martinis and, of course, gin and tonics worldwide.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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