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New Funds Help UF/IFAS Fight Citrus Greening In Central Florida

Small lopsided fruit from greening-infected citrus tree. Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS.
Small lopsided fruit from greening-infected citrus tree. Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences received funds to help find a cure for one of the Florida citrus’ most costly pests.

Researchers at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) were awarded about $13.4 million last month as part of the federal Specialty Crop Initiative Citrus Disease Research and Education (CDRE) program. The money will help fund four research projects to find a solution to citrus greening.

Huanglongbing, commonly referred to as citrus greening disease or HLB, was discovered among Florida’s citrus trees in 2005. The disease causes citrus to remain green when bacteria from the saliva of an exotic insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, blocks the flow of nutrients between the roots and leaves of a tree through the plant’s circulatory system, according to the UF/IFAS site.

Citrus greening has caused a total loss of about $4.5 billion in revenue and 8,800 jobs in Florida’s citrus industry between 2006 and 2010, as reported by UF/IFAS. Florida’s citrus industry accounts for $10.8 billion annually, with a large portion coming from Central Florida, said Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Florida Citrus Mutual, an association that helps Florida citrus growers sell their products.

The funding received from CDRE will be applied to the following research projects:

  • developing a spray that can be applied to affected crops and either eliminate or reduce the infectious bacteria
  • using steam-generated treatments to reduce the effects of the disease
  • creating a microbial treatment to cure affected plans
  • breeding crops that are genetically resistant to citrus greening

The diversity of the projects offers a better opportunity for the industry to thrive until a cure is found, said Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida.

UF/IFAS began researching a cure for citrus greening in 2005, but the speed of the spreading disease on commercial land and the federal government's refusal to fund the research led to a major decrease in size of Florida’s citrus groves, Payne said.

One of the four projects funded by the grants is aimed at using genetics to see how the citrus plants respond to the bacteria. The research team hopes to discover how to create a new breed of plants resistant to citrus greening, said Fred Gmitter, horticultural researcher at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, Florida.

“Once we understand the genes that cause a plant to be sensitive, or conversely, the genes that make another kind of citrus tolerant, then we have targets that we can focus on with new ways to repair the problems in the sensitive plants,” Gmitter said.

The research UF/IFAS conducts will generate more knowledge about not only curing, but maintaining citrus greening levels too, Payne said. He said he thinks any advancement from the research will make producers more successful and economically prepared to stay in business.

The major concern behind research efforts is the factor of time.  The constant threat of citrus greening spreading to more crops has caused many growers to find alternative crops to grow, as well as an increase in costs to care for affected plants, Payne said.

“It’s costing about $2,000 an acre more in growing citrus. For a lot of the smaller operators, it’s getting too expensive,” he said. “What we’re seeing is a consolidation of the citrus industry.”

Others are more optimistic that helping citrus growers find ways to treat citrus greening will restore the industry’s strength.

“Citrus growers want to grow citrus, however, many are spooked by the threat of HLB,” Meadows said. “If that threat is removed, you will have major re-plantings.”

Gmitter believes that even if UF/IFAS does not find a cure for citrus greening, any new information generated by the research will positively influence the citrus industry.

“Production costs will be decreased substantially, the use of pesticides can be dramatically lowered leading to environmental benefits, as well as making citrus products safer,” Gmitter said. “The critical economic engine that the industry represents to the state of Florida will be restored.”

Stephanie is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org