Spinach may save Florida’s citrus crop

Genetically modifying oranges with the gene of a spinach plant may save O.J.

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — As debate rages over GMOs, there’s an active experiment that just may save Florida’s citrus industry.

Spinach may save orange juice from citrus greening – a bacteria that’s decimating Florida’s orange groves.

“Spinach has some defensins that provide resistance to the bacteria that causes citrus greening,” said Erik Mirkov, a researcher at Texas A & M University.

“Citrus does have its own defensins but they aren’t effective in keeping the tree healthy when it becomes infected with the bacteria that causes citrus greening

“What we found is if we put the genes that are in spinach into citrus we have citrus trees that are resistant to citrus greening,” said Mirkov.

Mirkov is a virologist and molecular biologist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, Texas. He works for Texas A&M AgriLife Research, a state agency of the Texas A&M University System.

His work is the industry’s best hope of defeating citrus greening which threatens citrus in Texas, Arizona, California and Florida.

“No other short term solution has been found. Every researcher in the world familiar with the disease has indicated that the ultimate solution will be bio-technology,” said Ricke Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus in Clewiston, Florida. The company is a subsidiary of the U.S. Sugar Corp.

Kress grew up in Chautauqua County and graduated from Cornell University. As president of one of Florida’s largest orange juice producers, he is leading the fight against citrus greening.

“It has the potential to wipe out the citrus industry,” said Kress, who has been in the fruit, juice and vegetable industry for 42 years.

Citrus greening is a bacteria spread by the  Asian Citrus Psyllid. It began affecting trees in Florida in 2005 and has since killed trees throughout the state. Southern Gardens Citrus, a major juice supplier to many labels including Tropicana, was one of the first with infected trees. It has since lost over 800,000 trees – a quarter of its groves.

“It’s the biggest challenge our industry faces right now. We have citrus greening in all 32 commercial citrus-producing counties in Florida,” said Andrew Meadows, spokesman, Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry group.

“It’s endemic to the state. It was founded in 2005 and has spread through the state since then.”

Before citrus greening, Florida was producing 242 million boxes or oranges. The most recent count this fall was 108 million boxes.

The devastation has yet to bottom out since it takes as long as three years for the bacteria to kill a tree.

“Citrus greening is a bacterial disease transmitted by an insect that is as prevalent in Florida as the mosquito,” said Kress. “It was confirmed in 2005; one of our groves was one of the first groves where it was confirmed.

“It’s a disease that basically disrupts and blocks the nutrient delivery system of the citrus tree so the tree does not manufacture and transport the nutrients within the tree so the tree will grow and mature fruit as it should. Nutrients can’t get to the tree first to produce fruit and then ultimately live,” said Kress.

In an unprecedented collaboration between the federal government, industry and researchers, work is happening on many fronts to limit the damage.

Cornell University researcher Michelle Cilia is among the scientists working on ways to early detect the disease and slow its devastation.

“We are part of a brand new study that has just initiated in March that involves investigators from many different institutions and each one of us is using a different type of technology to measure how the infection changes the tree and this is the basis for this early detection platform,” Cilia said.

“Right now we have the very first set of experiments ongoing and we are four to five months into that experiment.” She said the researchers are looking over time at how the infection impacts the tree.

“We are looking at different citrus varieties and we have at least another year and a half of experiments planned with that group,” Cilia added.

A solution is years away.

Growers are watching hopefully as Mirkov plants new trees infused with the spinach gene in a government-controlled experiment. So far, the newly planted trees are thriving.

“What we’re getting now with our later work is true resistance. The trees don’t become infected at all with the bacteria,” said Mirkov.

Even if Mirkov succeeds, his work has to win approval of U.S. government agencies.

Then it has to pass the most important test of all.

Will consumers be willing to buy orange juice squeezed from oranges containing a spinach gene?

“We’re spending a lot of time and effort now in doing all of the safety testing showing that spinach protein in citrus is just as safe as they are when you eat citruses and when you eat spinach,” said Mirkov.

If Mirkov’s gene becomes the solution and shoppers reject it, Kress says it could kill the citrus industry worldwide. Nearly every country that grows citrus has been touched by the disease.

“Can we live without citrus, probably, but what’s the next product that could come into play that might be faced with the same feelings?” said Kress.

If Mirkov’s research succeeds, it won’t be the first time that a fruit has been saved by genetic changes.

Hawaii’s papaya crop was saved starting in 1998 when the plant was genetically modified to resist the domestic Ringspot virus which had been devastating the island’s crop.

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