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Can Gene Silencing Save the Citrus Industry?

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 9.11.41 AM

Photo courtesy of Forrest Innovations

Citrus greening disease or HLB (huanglongbing) is a bacterial disease transmitted by a small insect called the Asian Citrus Psyllid. HLB has become one of the most destructive diseases of citrus worldwide. Currently, it is aggressively attacking the major citrus producing regions of the world, infecting millions of trees.

Although the Asian Citrus Psyllid is small, the insects are wreaking havoc on citrus farms. Citrus trees become infected with the bacterium when the insect feeds on the tree leaves. The bacterium moves throughout the veins of the leaves and deprives the tree of essential nutrients and damages the roots. The effects of HLB cause the tree to bear small, less productive fruit which is unsuitable to be sold as fresh fruit or juice.

Florida citrus farms have been hit hard by the disease. In fact, HLB is on the verge of wiping out the state’s signature crop. Already, 90 percent of Florida’s acreage and 80 percent of the trees are infected according to a new survey by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Citrus fruit is the leading fruit crop in international trade with an annual production of over 130 million tons, covering an area of nearly nine million hectares. Historically, citrus has been a multi-billion-dollar global market with its main cash crop, oranges, bringing in a yearly cultivation of 68 million tons and over 13 billion in gross value. However, with the spread of HLB, those numbers have been on the decline. As the disease continues to devour citrus farms worldwide, farmers are feeling the burden financially. In Florida alone, the estimated loss between 2006 and 2011 is 4.5 billion and the loss of 8,000 jobs.

In an attempt to battle the disease, farmers are using intensive chemical control, removing infected trees and quarantining disease-free trees in a nursery. However, these tactics are proving to be unproductive as long-term solutions. Here in St. Louis, researchers at Forrest Innovations, Ltd., an Israeli company located at Bio Research & Development Growth (BRDG) Park are developing a solution they call Green Shield to control HLB using RNAi technology.

RNAi is a technology based on a naturally occurring gene silencing mechanism. It represents a novel approach to plant protection and for ensuring the production of high quality agricultural products. This technology is safe, highly specific, non-toxic and fully degradable. Forrest is applying the RNAi approach in Green Shield by harnessing the existing natural mechanism in citrus trees to manage the effect of the pathogen in citrus trees; thus, restoring productive and economic citrus production.

“Forrest Innovations is committed to solving serious problems the world is facing,” said Dr. Roy Borochov, USA site lead at Forrest Innovations. “Our approach is to use cutting edge technology to solve these problems understanding the world’s resources are limited and we should use them wisely. Green Shield is a great example of how Forrest Innovations uses its experience and knowledge to harness nature and natural occurring molecules to solve a serious problem the worldwide citrus industry is facing. These are the same principles being applied in Forrest Innovations’ solution platform to Zika and Yellow Fever we call NoMoreMos.”

Although there is currently no effective solution in the market to combat HLB and most citrus producing areas are expected to become infected with the disease soon, scientific technologies such as RNAi have great potential to address the epidemic. Learn more about Forrest Innovations and the Green Shield approach here.

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BRDG Park at The Danforth Plant Science Center
1005 N. Warson Road, Ste 201
Saint Louis, MO 63132

Mark Gorski
p. 314-812-8027
e. mark.gorski@wexfordscitech.com

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