The Florida citrus industry is having their worst harvest in 73 years, and scientists at the University of Connecticut are stepping in to help.
The poor harvest is in part because of damage from Hurricane Irma, but the devastation started long before that. A disease known as citrus greening has been wreaking havoc for years. UConn researchers are working on a solution.
“Our hope is that we can modify endogenous genes in citrus to create the greening disease's resistance,” explained University of Connecticut scientist Dr. Yi Li.
Gene editing is often discussed in terms of medical advancements and new health treatments. But gene editing can also benefit the food we eat and agriculture as well. Some of the latest developments are happening in Connecticut.
Florida citrus crops have been falling victim to the greening disease since 2005. The contagious disease is spread by a bacteria found in insects feeding off of citrus crops. The bacteria grows and spreads throughout the trees. But the process is slow - it can take up to five years after a tree is infected for it to show signs of damage. As of today, 75 percent of the Florida citrus crops have been wiped out by this quickly spreading disease that has also made its way to crops in Texas and California.
The UConn scientists are working in conjunction with the University of Florida to find a cure.
“We are basically the technology development lab,” Li said. “And then once we develop the technology people in Florida our collaborators are going to use our technology to genetically modify citrus genome.”
These small, targeted changes to an organism’s original genes produce a specific beneficial result. These genetic alterations can provide plants and animals with beneficial characteristics, just like the disease resistance seen in the citrus crops.
Helping the Florida citrus crop is only part of what’s being done here in the lab. Li and his team have also been implementing their gene editing technique on landscaping products that could soon be used in your own backyard. Their latest project? Slow growing grass.
“We started to breed them to develop these traits that we thought would be beneficial to lawn owners, homeowners, and commercial lawn care people,” explains PhD student Lorenzo Katin-Grazzini, “Such as slow growth to drastically reduce the mowing time that’s needed to really just save cost and time and energy associated with turf grass management.”
Li has also created a genetically modified burning bush, a plant often found in New England that spreads rapidly. Where it grows nothing else can, decreasing the diversity in our forests.
“They either don’t produce seeds or produce very few seeds as such that the birds cannot spread them anymore because there are no seeds,” Li said. “So we hope that those plants are going to be released through horticulture in the next two to three years.”
But the lab at UConn isn’t stopping there.
“I do want to work with more ornamental plants,” Li said. “Particularly invasive plants because I do think that has a huge impact on biodiversity on our environment so if we can use gene editing technology to make that non-invasive that’s what I would like to work on.”