UF Research Discovers Cure For Citrus Greening

October 18
6:00 AM 2016

Researchers have a found cure for citrus greening. The researchers' tools were chemistry class standards - glass flasks, test tubes and pipettes - but the task performed may be part of a revolutionary cure for the scourge of the state's orange industry: citrus greening.

The test tube in a tiny lab at the Lake Alfred Citrus Research and Education Center held dissolved citrus tissue. The fluid dripping into it from a pipette carried an enzyme that can snip genes like scissors, along with strands of RNA to guide the enzyme to precise genetic targets. They are part of a gene-editing tool called CRISPR, which is so efficient it has been loosely compared to the "find and replace" function of a word-processing program.

Nian Wang, the University of Florida professor leading this CRISPR research team at Lake Alfred, said the tool could cut decades from reaching the holy grail of citrus research - producing varieties immune from the disease that has devastated Florida's most iconic industry.

The benefits of CRISPR are not just that it can eliminate genes that make citrus vulnerable to greening. It can replace them with other genes from the same plant, rather than from jellyfish or spinach, as has been the case with some previous genetically modified organisms.

Mostly because CRISPR products don't borrow genes from other plants or animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled last spring that they won't face the same regulation as earlier generations of GMOs.

The method could also provide growers fighting to hang on using a variety of expensive, lower-tech tools - including the regular replanting of groves - with a product more palatable to the public.

The impact of greening, a bacterial disease carried by small insects called psyllids, can be seen in the many groves of dead or dying trees surrounding the research center on the northern edge of the Central Florida citrus belt.

The annual production of oranges in Florida, 242 million boxes in the 2003-2004 season, dropped to 81.6 million boxes last season. And on Wednesday, the USDA released a dire prediction for the coming harvest, 70 million boxes - though some of that predicted decline is blamed on heavy rains last spring that stripped blossoms from trees before they were able to bear fruit.CRISPR is based on a virus-fighting system in bacteria that uses DNA, the building blocks of chromosomes, and ribonucleic acid, which transmits genetic messages.

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