The Future Is in the Research

While the news cycle reaction to the announced May citrus forecast focused on the
numbers, there was an underlying sentiment about the future impact this season may
have on the citrus industry. 

In a statement about the citrus forecast, Florida Department of Citrus Executive Director
Shannon Shepp noted that the “(c)urrent crop forecast numbers serve as a testament to
the impact of our industry’s hardships but cannot convey the future potential of cutting-
edge research.”

The cutting-edge research is the key, particularly as it relates to genetic editing and

According to a 2019 article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences,
researchers found that “due to some of the biological characteristics of citrus,
conventional breeding methods have demonstrated limitations to producing new citrus
cultivars with an improved resistance to diseases.” Genetic engineering, they said,
including transgenic or genome-editing technologies, can be methods of choice to
overcome the limitations posed by traditional breeding and have made it possible to
protect susceptible commercial cultivars against pathogens, 

Genetic modification research has played a role in the fight against greening since it first
appeared. It is now beginning to play a larger role. Researchers not only at the
University of Florida, but around the world are working on transforming citrus. A 2021
article published in Frontiers in Plant Science noted that “genetic engineering
technologies offer a series of alternative approaches that allow overcoming the
limitations conventional breeding programs.” 

One method focuses on genome editing. The complete genome sequence of several
citrus species as well as advances in technologies such as CRISPR genome editing
(clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) could be applied to create
citrus that could counteract the effects of HLB. Yet while genome editing holds some
fascination and somewhat broad support worldwide, there is a relatively long lead time
to get from an edited cell to a mature tree.

Another method involves genetic engineering. According to a 2022 Genetic Literacy
Project article by Steve Savage, there are research programs being pursued by the
University of Florida, Texas A&M, Purdue, the University of California and the USDA
that involves identifying genes for antimicrobial peptides to counteract the HLB
organism. These genes would become a part of the tree genome or be placed in the
tree with the help of a benign version of a common citrus virus, according to the

There are still many diverse strategies to strengthen, protect, and increase yield
including water management, nutrition, protective screening, breeding, pest management and rootstocks. All of these have an important place. However, the future
is in the advanced research.

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