This month, a lime tree and a kumquat tree with HLB were identified in residential areas of the San Gabriel Valley. In March 2012, an infected multi-grafted citrus was found in a Hacienda Heights backyard.
“So far, the bacterium that causes HLB has been found infecting only three trees, which have all been destroyed,” said Beth Grafton-Cardwell, UC ANR Cooperative Extension citrus entomology specialist. “However, it is highly likely there are other infected trees in California. It will be critical for all Californians to assist with efforts to reduce psyllids and detect and remove infected trees to prevent this disease from devastating California citrus.”
HLB disease is spread from tree to tree by Asian citrus psyllid, an invasive insect first identified in California in 2008. ACP has become established in many Southern California communities and is seen occasionally in the state's San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast commercial citrus production areas. Locations where ACP are found are quarantined by CDFA. No untreated or unprocessed citrus fruit and no citrus trees may be moved from these areas. UC ANR maintains an online map that delineates the quarantined locations. The map also shows the area quarantined because of the recent HLB find.
Once a tree is infected with the bacterium that causes HLB, there is no cure. To prevent HLB infections, citrus owners in areas where Asian citrus psyllids are found may wish to treat their trees with insecticides.
“We believe about 60 percent of Californians have at least one citrus tree in their yard, so HLB could have a devastating effect on the California residential landscape,” Grafton-Cardwell said. “There are safe and effective ways to reduce the ACP population, which reduces the chances of losing a tree to HLB.”
Grafton-Cardwell developed a website for farmers and residents with detailed information on managing Asian citrus psyllid. In some urban areas, a natural enemy of ACP, Tamarixia radiata, has been released. In those areas, Grafton-Cardwell recommends the use of “soft” insecticides that will reduce the number of psyllids and allow the Tamarixia to control the rest.
To help California residents and commercial citrus growers deal with the ACP and HLB citrus threats, UC ANR, UC Davis and UC Riverside scientists are conducting research on a number of possible solutions.
For example, Abhaya Dandekar, professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, and his colleagues are studying gene fusion, which fuses two immunosuppressive genes that attack HLB in different ways to make the plant more effective at fighting the disease.
Mikeal Roose, a professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at UC Riverside, is working with researchers in Florida to sequence a rootstock that has some natural resistance to HLB and locate the gene or genes that cause HLB resistance.
Mark Hoddle, UC ANR Cooperative Extension biocontrol specialist at UC Riverside, has identified a second natural enemy of ACP from the Punjab, Pakistan. (The first one was Tamarixia radiata.) Populations of Diaphorencyrtus aligarhensis have also been released in urban areas and Hoddle is monitoring the insect's ability to attack ACP.
Because it is important to remove trees infected with HLB as soon as possible to reduce spread, UC scientists are also studying ways to identify trees with the disease before visual symptoms occur.
For example, Hailing Jin, professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at UC Riverside, has identified small RNAs that are induced by the bacterium that causes HLB and could be used for early diagnosis.
Carolyn Slupsky, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at UC Davis, has identified metabolites that change in concentration when citrus is infected with the bacterium that causes HLB. She is working with the Citrus Research Board (CRB), CDFA, Texas A&M, and USDA to validate her results and determine how quickly the disease may be detected once the tree has been exposed to the pathogen. She is also part of a USDA collaborative grant to study the vector that transmits the disease to help find ways to stop transmission.
Wenbo Ma, professor in the Department of Plant Pathology Microbiology at UC Riverside, has developed antibodies against proteins secreted by the HLB pathogen – revealing whether the plant is infected. These antibodies have been evaluated in California, Florida and Texas for HLB detection.
An initiative to manage endemic and invasive pests and diseases is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.
Author: Jeannette Warnert
“HLB is not just bad for growers and for the economy,” said Slupsky. “The loss of fresh oranges and other citrus could seriously impact our health.”
HLB is a disease caused by a microbe called Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus and spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect that feeds on the leaves and stems of citrus trees. There is no cure yet for HLB, so once a tree is infected, it will slowly die. The disease has decimated citrus groves in Asia, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Florida has lost one-third of its citrus to the disease. Both HLB and the Asian citrus psyllid have recently been spotted in California.
HLB is a silent killer – an infected tree can live for years without symptoms, allowing the pathogen to spread undetected to other trees. Symptoms emerge over time, as a tree’s fruit starts to turn green and misshapen, with a bitter, metallic taste.
Is there a way to spot HLB before visual symptoms occur? The microbe that causes HLB can sometimes be found in a leaf sample, but since the pathogen isn’t evenly distributed throughout the tree, results can be misleading.
“Just because the pathogen doesn’t show up in one leaf, that doesn’t guarantee the tree isn’t infected,” said MaryLou Polek, vice president of science and technology for the California Citrus Research Board. “So when you sample a leaf, there’s a high probability of a false negative result.”
Slupsky and Andrew Breksa, research chemist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service based in Albany, Calif., tried a different tack, searching for clues in a tree’s chemical fingerprint. They used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study the amino acid composition of juice from three types of citrus: fruit from healthy tress, symptom-free (asymptomatic) fruit from HLB-positive trees, and fruit with symptoms from HLB-positive trees.
“We found major differences in the chemical fingerprint among healthy, asymptomatic and symptomatic fruits,” Slupsky said.
With further research, the profiles may prove to be a reliable, rapid, and early indicator of the presence of the HLB pathogen. With early detection, growers and regulators can know which trees might need to be removed before the disease spreads throughout the orchard (and beyond).
“These findings are huge for citrus growers, backyard gardeners and everyone who loves fresh citrus,” Polek said.
And there’s more. While analyzing the amino acids, Slupsky and Breksa discovered what looks like a mechanism underlying the microbe’s mode of attack.
“The pathogen responsible for HLB seems to cause havoc with a tree’s ability to defend itself from infection,” Slupsky said.
Trees need amino acids for growth, development and defense. From Slupsky and Breksa’s studies, it looks like the HLB pathogen affects the trees’ ability to create, use and recycle some of those amino acids. For example, a tree can convert the amino acid phenylalanine into cinnamic acid, a precursor to compounds important to the tree’s defense systems. But juice from oranges of HLB-positive trees had significantly higher concentrations of phenylalanine. Also, juice from oranges grown on HLB-infected trees contained a lot less of the amino acid proline, which a tree usually synthesizes when it knows something is wrong.
“It could be that the pathogen is outsmarting the tree by undermining its defenses,” Slupsky said. “That’s a spectacular discovery, because when we understand the mechanisms behind the attack, we have a chance at blocking them. Maybe we can find ways to enhance a tree’s natural immunity.”
As tough as HLB has been on citrus in Florida, the stakes are even higher in California where so much of the world’s fresh citrus is produced.
“Florida’s citrus industry produces mostly orange juice, and they can use additives and filtration to adjust for the bitter taste of HLB-affected fruit,” Polek said. “It can be reduced to sugar water, essentially, and then built back up to taste like orange juice. We produce fresh citrus here in California, and chemistry is not an option.”
Losing fresh citrus is a real possibility if HLB spreads throughout California, and that prospect is the driving force behind Slupsky’s research.
“From a nutritional standpoint, it’s hard to beat the importance of fresh citrus,” Slupsky said. “Oranges provide energy, pectin, and a wide variety of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. They’re one of the most consumed fruits in the United States. I can’t imagine life without fresh citrus.”
Slupsky and Breksa collaborated with Thomas G. McCollum of the ARS Horticultural Research Laboratory in Fort Pierce, Florida, along with Anne Slisz and Darya Mishchuk of Slupsky’s lab. A peer-reviewed article on their findings was published in the Journal of Proteome Research in June 2012. You can access the article at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/pr300350x.