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Univ. Lab Discovers, Licenses Citrus Disease Treatment

Australian finger lime

Australian finger lime (Zaaera, Wikimedia Commons)

8 July 2020. Plant scientists in California discovered a natural peptide that stops bacteria from causing citrus greening, a disease destroying citrus crops worldwide. University of California in Riverside, site of the lab led by geneticist Hailing Jin that discovered the peptide, is licensing the discovery to agricultural technology start-up, Invaio Sciences Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts for development into commercial products.

Citrus greening, also known as huanglongbing or HLB, is a bacterial disease that according to U.S. Department of Agriculture, destroyed more than three-quarters of citrus crops in Florida. Citrus greening already devastated citrus crops in Asia and South America, and also appears in citrus-producing states of Texas and California. Up to now, no cures nor resistant varieties for citrus greening were available.

The disease is caused by the bacterium Canidatus Liberbacter asiaticus and spread by the Asian citrus psyllid when feeding on new shoots. Early detection and removal of diseased trees are essential for controlling citrus greening, but many infected trees do not display symptoms for months, making it difficult to control its spread.

Jin’s lab studies plant immunity and pathogens, seeking environmentally-friendly solutions to plant diseases, focusing on instructions to cells in RNA transcribed from a plant’s DNA or genetic code. A team from the lab analyzed RNA profiles and corresponding gene expression of citrus varieties that tolerate citrus greening. Their screening method isolated genes in Australian finger limes, a popular edible fruit, that allow those plants to withstand citrus greening bacteria. The lab’s investigation revealed a peptide — a short chain of amino acids — that silences receptive proteins in Australian finger limes, providing the plants with immunity against the disease.

Tests by Jin and colleagues over two years confirmed the peptide’s effectiveness. “You can see the bacteria drastically reduced,” says Jin in a university statement, “and the leaves appear healthy again only a few months after treatment.”

The peptide is also more stable and able to withstand high temperatures than many agricultural antibiotics. “Most antibiotics are temperature sensitive, so their effects are largely reduced when applied in the hot weather,” notes Jin. “By contrast, this peptide is stable even when used in 130-degree heat.” Because of the peptide’s stability, the researchers believe it needs to be applied only a few times a year, either as a treatment or a type of vaccine for younger plants.

The company Invaio Sciences is acquiring the peptide from UC-Riverside to develop it for citrus growers. The deal gives Invaio Sciences an exclusive global license to the peptide, but financial details of the agreement were not disclosed.

Invaio is a two year-old company developing technologies from natural sources for agriculture that replace chemicals harmful to farm workers and the environment. Among its products are delivery systems for packaging bioactive molecules for safe transmission and their precise injection into plants’ vascular networks. These delivery methods, says Invaio, are more effective than sprays and do not harm the plants.

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