A $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative supports the continuing efforts of researchers from 10 U.S. academic and national research labs, and the University of Grenada in Spain, who have joined forces to combat citrus greening, a disease that has all but decimated the citrus industry in Florida and is evident in Texas and California groves.
Caused by the proliferation of a bacterial species Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus (CLas) in citrus trees, the disease is spread by tiny sap-sucking insects called Asian citrus psyllids as they feed. Once introduced into the host trees via the psyllids, the bacteria move through the veins of trees. The disease starves the tree of nutrients and damages its roots. Fruit from the tree are small and misshapen.
"Our goal is to establish a research pipeline to develop and deliver novel therapies designed to kill the insect when it tries to feed on citrus or block its ability to transmit the bacteria," said Susan Brown, university distinguished professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University and principal investigator on the project. "Either way, it can't spread the disease anymore."
The new funding will allow researchers to build on work they began two years ago.
Their approach requires detailed knowledge of the interactions between the insect and the bacteria and the effects of any treatment on citrus. Since it is difficult to access information on such diverse systems, an early goal of the project - and one that has been accomplished - was to develop a platform that allows researchers to access information about the genes, proteins and metabolites of the insect, bacterium and citrus to better understand how to combat the disease.
Another major milestone accomplished was the analysis of the psyllid genome, which involved several undergraduate researchers at Kansas State University, Cornell University and Indian River State College. The students identified genes in the insect genome that can be targeted in new therapies.
Jason Ellis, Kansas State University associate professor and interim head of the Department of Communications and Agricultural Education, is a co-principal investigator on the project and leads efforts to interact with industry, academic and consumer groups.
"The continued funding will allow us to move our work from the laboratory to the green house and the grove for efficient deployment to the citrus growers," Ellis said.
Sometimes referred to as simply "greening," the disease was first detected in Florida in 2005 and spread rapidly through the state's citrus groves.
Fruit from infected trees is safe to eat, but production is reduced so much that citrus fruit may be less available and more expensive.
Provided by Kansas State University
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