Callie Walker with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) recently gave an update on the citrus black spot quarantine in Southwest Florida. Walker is bureau chief of pest eradication and control for FDACS’ Division of Plant Industry and serves as statewide director for the Citrus Health Response Program. She summarizes the presentation she made at the Florida Citrus Growers’ Institute in Avon Park last month.
“This year we have had two major expansions” in the quarantine area for the disease, Walker says. “One was in Charlotte County. The other was the first time we’ve ever had residential citrus black spot found on a tangerine variety in Lee County.”
She says those expansions added “significant acreage” to the quarantine area. The major quarantine areas are in Collier, Hendry and Lee counties. There is also a very small regulated area in Polk County, along with one citrus black spot find in Charlotte County.
Toward Better Food Plants: The Promise of Gene Editing
By G.B. Crawford
Since the dawn of agriculture human societies have sought improvements in food plants. Over time this quest has involved such objectives as a sweeter fruit or better resistance to a pest.
Traditional plant breeding can achieve a desired result, but the process may take many years of trial and error to complete and nurture unwelcome traits.
A series of scientific breakthroughs that began in the 1990s has created the opportunity to use a new approach. Researchers discovered that nucleases (enzymes) could remove specific sections of genetic material within a plant. They subsequently found that they could activate the expression of certain genes.
As currently applied, the tool relies upon the plant’s natural biology to enhance a preferred trait without introducing material from another organism – much like traditional breeding.
Genetic engineering of a plant can require more than a decade to develop and exact a price tag of above $100 million. By contrast, researchers note, gene editing costs a fraction of that figure and may be completed much more quickly.
Within the past five years, a new editing technology known as CRISPR has given researchers a more precise way to target a particular gene. (CRISPR is an acronym for an appallingly long description of certain DNA sequences: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). It is easier and cheaper to use than other editing techniques.
For farmers, editing promises increased harvest volumes on the same acreage at less cost. New plant varieties can reduce the use of water and fertilizer as well as losses due to pests and disease.
Consumers can benefit from larger crop yields with less production costs by boosting the abundance of nutritious foods and moderating their retail prices.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture must increase productivity by 50% within the next 30 years to supply adequate nutrition for the world’s human population. Most experts warn that current agricultural capability alone cannot meet this need.
Susan Jenkins, managing director of the Innovative Genetics Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, has concluded that gene editing offers a key to meeting the challenge. “We have the ability to modify plants to make them have better water use efficiency and also better nutrient use,” Jenkins said.
“I am optimistic about how we use this technology, how it will be applied and the number of people it will benefit,” she added. “Because we can sequence the entire genome very inexpensively right now, we can make a change in a plant by using CRISPR. We can sequence the entire genome of that new organism and we can say exactly where other changes took place.”
The California facility has been a leader in developing improved cassava plants. Jenkins noted that researchers across the nation are working with other crops, including citrus and tomatoes.
Citrus growers in Florida anxiously await the development of new varieties in their long battle with greening disease. Gene editing may develop a tree immune to the malady.
Microbiologist Nian Wang is employing CRISPR to develop such a tree at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. Wang, a pioneer in this research, has directed the project for nearly five years.
“We try to optimize gene editing for citrus,” he explained. “We want to identify which genes make the plant susceptible to the pathogen.”
Testing plants is a long-term process. “You want to make sure the genes you modify will not cause unwanted side effects,” Wang said. “You want to make sure you do the right thing by moving carefully.”
A commercially-viable plant will be forthcoming. But he cannot yet offer a timetable for its availability.
“We feel a real responsibility as scientists,” Wang said. “We want to find a solution as soon as possible.”
Geneticist Tong Geon Lee is leading a gene editing project with tomatoes at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm. The goal is to develop a tomato plant that can be harvested by machine.
Lee noted that although this research has already produced new plants for greenhouse testing, he must complete a comprehensive assessment of new varieties before they can be released for general production. “Our first goal is to reduce plant height without damaging the fruit quality,” Lee said. “We don’t want to sacrifice fruit quality and other important traits for Florida growers.”
A number of private firms have launched ventures to utilize the technology. Corteva Agriscience, agriculture division of DowDuPont, has invested in CRISPR research for a number of row crops – especially corn and soybeans.
Senior Research Manager Bobby Williams said the company is moving forward with plans for a commercial pilot project with waxy corn. The research team has already developed an edited plant. Kernels of this corn contain high levels of amylopectin, a starch that can be used to thicken foods and make adhesives for labels.
Waxy corn is primarily a Midwestern farm commodity. But Williams said gene editing may reinforce traits that allow it to thrive in other locations.
He is optimistic that the technology will be widely applied to food crops. “I think there are a lot of opportunities when you get into the fruit and vegetable market,” Williams said. “Those are things that consumers can see and understand their benefits.”
A Durham, North Carolina-based firm, Pairwise, is applying CRISPR to row crops as well as fruits and vegetables. Haven Baker, the company’s chief business officer, said the “focus is to make noticeable improvements to the produce aisle. We’re trying to make produce more convenient, more affordable and possibly healthier.”
CEO Tom Adams pointed out that Pairwise is designed to operate as a food company. “The amazing, exciting opportunity that CRISPR brought was the ability to start doing things with crops that are in the consumer space,” Adams said.
He expects that it will have a large-scale impact on fresh produce by the mid-2020s.
The United States Department of Agriculture has expressed approval of gene-edited food plants. In 2018 Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the agency “does not regulate or have plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques.” Other agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have not yet issued official positions.
Communication with Consumers
Researchers and agribusiness leaders acknowledge the obligation to communicate the value of the technology.
“I do believe that the products out there and the things that are nearing production on the market are safe to consume,” the University of California’s Jenkins said. “I would personally consume them.
“In the past we as scientists made the assumption wrongly that if we just got out and educated people about what we are doing, they would understand how safe this is, how practical it is and what our intentions are, it would be accepted,” she explained. “It is more about having a conversation with the consumer and what the consumer wants or needs.”
Haven Baker of Pairwise is confident consumers will be able to understand the benefits of this work because they will have access to the results in the grocery store.
“We think CRISPR will be one of the key tools of this century in meeting the needs of Florida and the rest of the world – to bring better foods to our markets,” Baker said.
G.B. Crawford is director of public relations for the Florida Farm Bureau.
By Tripti Vashisth, Davie Kadyampakeni and Lushan Ghimire
In the past few years, horticultural citrus grove management practices have changed significantly in Florida. It is a common observation across the state that huanglongbing (HLB)-affected trees respond well to complete and balanced nutrition programs. Therefore, citrus growers are currently focusing on intensive management of irrigation and nutrition.
HLB-affected trees suffer a significant root loss. In some cases, up to 80 percent root loss has been observed. Nonetheless, the roots of HLB-affected plants are functional and efficient in nutrient uptake. But due to reduced biomass and surface area, the amount of nutrient absorbed by roots is limited. Application of large volumes of fertilizer or water are therefore likely to leach out of the root zone before the tree can absorb them. Hence, application of small and frequent doses of fertilizer and water is recommended to improve nutrient availability and potential absorption by the tree.
A fertilizer program should include a balanced supply of all the essential nutrients. Every nutrient is indispensable; an excess or deficiency of any single nutrient can adversely affect tree performance. Foliar application of certain nutrients can be beneficial for the tree, especially when dealing with a known nutrient deficiency, but the focus should be on an all-nutrient soil-applied fertilizer program.
The soil-applied nutrients are absorbed by the roots along with the water uptake, so mobile (e.g., nitrogen and potassium) and immobile (e.g., boron, zinc, iron and calcium) plant nutrients are distributed throughout the plant as needed. It is important to ensure that the fertilizer is available to the trees year-round, since the growth season is long in Florida.
When applying fertilizer, the focus should be on the 4Rs (right source, rate, timing and place) of plant nutrients. However, with a soil-applied fertilizer program, another factor that is as important as the 4Rs is soil pH.
SOIL pH AFFECTS NUTRITION
Soil pH of the root zone is a very critical factor that affects nutrient availability and uptake. Most of the micronutrients become less available at higher, alkaline (pH>7.0) soil pH and reach toxic levels at low acidity (pH<5.0). Many Florida soils and irrigation waters are alkaline, which can limit nutrient availability if not corrected.
In addition, irrigation water in Florida is often high in bicarbonates, which after long periods of use can increase soil pH, affect tree health and reduce yields. The increase in soil pH and effect of bicarbonate-rich irrigation water depends on the bicarbonate concentration in the water, irrigation timing and quantity, the buffering capacity of soil and the rootstock variety.
Field studies done by Jim Graham and Kelly Morgan suggest that in groves where soil pH is neutral to alkaline and the irrigation water contains high concentrations of bicarbonates, trees often exhibit increased HLB symptoms and decline severely. Leaf nutrient analyses of such groves exhibit multiple nutrient deficiencies. In another survey, Graham and Morgan found that groves with soil pH higher than 6.5 and bicarbonates greater than 100 parts per million in irrigation water suffered from increased feeder root loss as well as reduced yields. A clear correlation of yield loss was observed in trees under bicarbonate stress and with lower root density when compared to low-bicarbonate stress trees. (For more information, see https://crec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/trade_journals/2015/2015_May_bicarbonates.pdf.) Therefore, most growers are currently using some method to reduce the soil pH.
The interaction between soil bicarbonates, pH and HLB is still unclear. Whether the bicarbonates increase the soil pH and therefore reduce the nutrient availability to the tree, or whether the presence of disease causes physiological changes to the tree remains to be answered. It is noteworthy that the soil bicarbonates in Florida have always been present, but pre-HLB tree performance was acceptable, even with alkaline pH-susceptible rootstocks. To better understand this interaction, we conducted an irrigation experiment with healthy and HLB-affected plants.
IRRIGATION WATER pH EXPERIMENT
The experiment was performed in a greenhouse because it is nearly impossible to keep trees free of HLB under open-field conditions. Healthy and HLB-affected Midsweet orange trees grafted on Kuharske rootstock were grown in potted grove soil. Plants were irrigated with water at pH 5.8, 7.0 or 8.0 every two to three days.
The pH of irrigation water was adjusted with sodium phosphate buffers. The tree performance was monitored over a period of 60 days. HLB-affected plants watered with pH 8.0 showed more than 80 percent leaf drop; healthy plants dropped about 60 percent of leaves (Table 1). About 40 percent of HLB-affected trees irrigated with pH 8.0 water died within 60 days. The leaf chlorophyll index decreased with higher pH (Figure 1) in both HLB-affected and healthy plants.
No significant differences in total root biomass were observed with different irrigation water pH. However, Figure 2 shows that plants irrigated with higher pH water had less visible feeder roots compared to pH 5.8. At the end of the study, it was observed that the HLB-affected plants irrigated with pH 5.8 water showed more growth than the healthy plants.
When irrigated with water at pH 7.0, leaf drop and stem dieback were apparent in HLB-affected plants, but healthy plants were less affected. With irrigation water at pH 8.0, both HLB-affected and healthy plants showed leaf drop and stem dieback, but these observations were more pronounced in HLB-affected plants.
Leaf nutrient analysis revealed that all the nutrients were in the optimum range for healthy and HLB-affected plants irrigated with water at pH 5.8 and 7.0. HLB plants irrigated with pH 8.0 showed deficiencies for magnesium, calcium and zinc, while other nutrients were in the optimal range.
Even though plants were watered at three different pH levels every time, the soil pH did not change dramatically, and remained close to 7.0. As the experiment progressed, the soil pH changed slightly depending on the irrigation water pH. This suggests that the soil buffering capacity and the rootstock have a major role to play in soil pH adjustment. So any efforts to manipulate soil pH should be for the long term and will require patience.
Overall, HLB-affected plants perform better when irrigated with low pH (moderately acidic) water. In the study, there was an interaction between HLB-affected plants and soil pH. The HLB-affected plants tended to perform better when soil pH was close to 6.0. When pH was above 6.5 to 7.0, the HLB plants began to decline. Healthy plants performed well at a wider pH range (6.0 to 7.0). Currently, we are conducting in-depth analyses to understand this interaction of soil pH and disease severity.
Acknowledgements: This work was supported by the Florida Citrus Initiative and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.
Tripti Vashisth and Davie Kadyampakeni are assistant professors, and Lushan Ghimire is a horticultural sciences graduate student — all with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Growers of one of Florida’s signature citrus crops, the grapefruit, may see more production and possibly less of the deadly citrus greening disease. Researchers have worked for four years, growing grapefruit under protective screens on a 1-acre experimental plot of trees at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and they’re seeing encouraging results.
UF/IFAS scientists and a few commercial growers have used the system, known as “CUPS,” or “Citrus Under Protective Screens,” for a few years. They’re trying to keep the dangerous Asian citrus psyllid away from citrus trees. Infected psyllids can transmit the deadly greening disease to citrus. So far, so good. They’re noticing higher grapefruit yields and no psyllids or greening.
Florida grapefruit production has been drastically reduced by citrus greening, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB). In Florida, grapefruit production has gone down from 40.8 million boxes in 2003-2004 to 4.9 million boxes in 2018-2019, according to the USDA.
Arnold Schumann, a UF/IFAS soil and water sciences professor, leads the “CUPS” experiment at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, Florida.
And right now, he sees reason for optimism. Schumann is studying how well grapefruit grows in the 1.3-acre facility at the CREC.
Four years of data show grapefruit that exhibit no signs of greening, Schumann said. Researchers planted ‘Ray Ruby’ grapefruit trees in August 2014. By December 2018, the trees had produced 2,100 boxes of grapefruits per acre, Schumann said. That’s 525 boxes per acre per year on average, but Schumann notes that trees are less productive in the initial two years after planting. In years 3 and 4, the CUPS grapefruit yields were 797 and 892 boxes per acre, respectively. Currently the average yield for Florida grapefruit is about 166 boxes per acre per year, according to the USDA.
“HLB reduces profits for fresh citrus producers in many ways,” Schumann said “Production costs are higher due to increased needs to use pesticides and fertilizers, and fruit production is harmed by stunted tree growth, reduced fruit set and pre-harvest fruit drop, among other factors.”
The CUPS experiment at the Citrus REC has demonstrated that nearly all those harmful effects of HLB can be addressed, Schumann said.
“During the past five years, we have learned much about optimizing horticultural practices and pest and disease management for red grapefruit grown in CUPS,” he said.
Scientists focus on producing high yields with premium grades for the fresh fruit market.
“Our understanding of fresh fruit quality has been honed by our partnership with the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, which harvested and shipped our CUPS grapefruits and tangerines for the past two seasons,” Schumann said “Most importantly, fruit grown in CUPS should all be ready to sell, and our grapefruit and tangerine harvests have achieved 100 percent pack-out. For grapefruits, the fruit size is very important because it greatly affects the selling price.”
One reason for the good yield is the grapefruit’s ability to adapt to the higher daytime temperatures under the protective covers, he said.
Other reasons for the increased productions include:
A hydroponic system with trees growing in pots, instead of soil and inducing early, large blooms.
Drip fertigation – a combination of fertilizer and irrigation — applied several times a day.
CUPS hydroponic grapefruit has all the important attributes for fresh fruit production: high yields of HLB-free fruit, large fruit size, consistent yields and early maturity, Schumann said.
“The experiments at the CREC focused on proving that the CUPS concept was viable,” Schumann said. “Trees were grown mostly in containers, using hydroponics and very high-planting densities.
A couple of Florida growers are using the CUPS method for grapefruit, although it’s too soon to know their results, Schumann said.
Scientists are not yet recommending the intensive production system used at the CREC experiment for commercial CUPS, although one grower in Hardee County is already experimenting with hydroponics and container-grown grapefruits, tangerines and navels under cover, Schumann said.
“Our aim is to maximize fruit production and quality in commercial CUPS with trees grown in the ground at moderately high-planting densities,” he said. “We want to document the most successful methods in a CUPS production guide and to update it as we learn more.”
Commercial citrus growers in Florida hungry for something new will soon see a seedless mandarin orange variety that not only tastes good and is easy to peel, but also stays on the tree longer. The last characteristic in particular is what makes ‘Marathon,’ an early season variety, stand out, say University of Florida citrus scientists.
The selection is said to mature by October, though even earlier in some seasons and can hold onto the tree well into December. The fruit’s ability to hang onto the tree for an extended period led researchers to give it the ‘Marathon’ name. That extended hang time benefits growers if they have limited labor or want to sell their produce at a time when they’ll get their best prices, according to Fred Gmitter, a Professor based at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.
“It’s unique in that it can hold on the tree for a long time and still maintain its fruit quality and postharvest shelflife,” he stated.
In addition to its other attributes, the ‘Marathon’ mandarin is somewhat tolerant to citrus greening.
While the new variety is not available in nurseries yet, Gmitter predicts growers can place orders for ‘Marathon’ trees later this year. Certified trees will be provided to licensed Florida citrus nurseries early this year for budwood increase.
Another recently released UF/IFAS mandarin, ‘Bingo,’ came from the same breeding line. Since then, growers across the state have planted well more than 150,000 ‘Bingo’ trees with the first fruit on the way.
One of the keys to ensuring the effectiveness of bactericides that now are being applied to citrus is making sure the material gets into the tree to treat citrus greening (also known as HLB). Ozgur Batuman, an Assistant Professor of plant pathology at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, is leading a team of researchers trying to make the automated delivery system a reality to help growers deal with the disease.
“The automated delivery system can be installed on any farm equipment and be operated by anyone who is driving – physically or remotely,” Batuman said in a news release. The person will be trained to use a joystick to control the arm that delivers the chemicals, he explained.
The system would extend from a tractor or ATV to grab the tree trunk. Because the grip has many small needles, it can create numerous tiny openings in the tree.
Bactericides can enter the tree through those small openings. These areas on the trunk with openings will be covered with a reservoir, such as a funnel or plastic balloon, that will hold the liquid containing the bactericide, Batuman said. The liquid then slowly enters through the holes of the trunk.
This contrasts with traditional tree trunk injections in which a grower would use large, single-needle syringes to inject liquid materials in one spot.
Most bactericide treatments are not very effective at staving off citrus greening because they were not directly delivered into the citrus vascular system, where greening — and its associated bacterium, Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus (CLas) lives, he said. The therapeutic chemicals can kill or suppress the growth of CLas and can be used in greening-affected plants, Batuman said. The system also can help newly planted trees fight greening by controlling the Asian citrus psyllid, which can transmit said the disease.
Researchers see the automated delivery system as part of an integrated pest management program to help stem the psyllid.
“We are developing a delivery method that will send chemicals with therapeutic potential into phloem, where bacteria live,” Batuman said.
Giles is editor of Florida Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication.
Can genetic modification save the US citrus industry?
Friday, 15 February, 2019
US citrus is being devastated by disease — will consumers be willing to accept GM citrus and so save the industry?
Huanglongbing (HB), also known as citrus greening disease, causes citrus trees to bear small, misshapen, bitter-tasting green fruit and often die within five years. Currently there is no cure for the disease, which is spread by a small brown bug — the Asian citrus psyllid.
So far Australia does not have this bug or disease although it is lurking on our northern borders and the Department of Agriculture is on alert. However, it has entered the US where it is wreaking havoc. It was first identified in Florida in 2005 and since then has cost the US citrus industry billions of dollars in crop production and thousands of jobs.
Among other solutions, scientists are exploring the possibility of breeding genetically modified trees that are resistant to the disease. But given the controversy over the safety of genetically modified food, scientists need to know whether producers will adopt this technology and whether shoppers will buy and consume GM citrus fruit.
A representative sample of US consumers and conducted focus groups was surveyed to better understand American consumers’ attitudes about GM food and agriculture.
About half of the 1050 people who responded to the survey had positive attitudes towards GM science, the researchers found. Nearly 37% of the consumers surveyed felt neutral about GM science and 14% had negative perceptions of it.
Most of the people who were receptive to GM science were white males who were millennials or younger, the data indicated. They were highly educated — most held a bachelor’s degree or higher — and affluent, with annual incomes of $75,000 or greater.
Women, on the other hand, constituted 64% of the group with negative feelings about GM science. Baby boomers and older adults were nearly twice as likely to fall into this group. People in this group also were less educated — about half reported some college but no degree.
Since social contexts influence public opinion on contentious issues, the survey also assessed respondents’ willingness to share their opinions about GM science, their current perceptions of others’ views on the topic and what they expected public opinion about it to be in the future.
The research team was particularly interested in exploring the potential impact of the ‘spiral of silence’ theory, a hypothesis on public opinion formation that states in part that people who are highly vocal about their opinions in public encourage others with similar views to speak out while effectively silencing those who hold opposite views.
That paper was published recently in the Journal of Agricultural Education.
“We must have these conversations about these wicked issues,” said University of Illinois agricultural communications professor Taylor Ruth. “If scientists let other people who don’t have a scientific background fill the void, we’re not going to be a part of that conversation and help people make decisions based upon all of the facts.”