Growers race to save orange from spreading disease

37By Heather Smith

MSN News – Increasingly, orange growers have come to believe that genetic engineering holds the only hope for developing a tree that is resistant to an incurable citrus disease.

 Guy Davies, an inspector for the Florida Division of Plant Industry, checks an orange tree for the insect Asian citrus psyllid that carries the bacterium causing disease, “citrus greening” or huanglongbing, from tree to tree on May 13, 2013 in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Ever since the deadly bacterium C. liberibacter first appeared in Florida’s orange groves in 2005, orange growers have been racing to save the country’s crop – and America’s orange juice – from disappearing from supermarket shelves.

C. liberibacter kills citrus trees by choking off their flow of nutrients; oranges are left sour and half green. It has earned a place on the Agriculture Department’s list of potential bioterrorism agents, and the only known way to stop its spread is by burning infected trees.

Increasingly, orange growers have come to believe that genetic engineering holds the only hope for developing a tree that is resistant to C. liberibacter and the insects that carry the bacteria. Since 2005, genes from spinach, onions, a virus and a pig were all considered as contenders in the fight to save oranges. Since then, spinach has emerged as a frontrunner.

Oranges grown with spinach genes could obtain FDA approval and be in supermarkets in as little as seven years, The New York Times reported.  “People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice,” the Times quoted one anonymous scientist as saying.

While resistance to genetically engineered crops remains high – especially in Europe, where some countries have prohibited their cultivation – oranges are not the only crop facing commercial extinction. Concern is growing that domesticated fruits’ wild ancestors, which are a key resource for scientists looking for genes linked to disease resistance, are also at risk of extinction.

Oranges are not the only fruit whose growers have turned to genetic engineering after standard solutions like pest control and conventional plant breeding have failed.

The banana – specifically, the Cavendish banana, which makes up 99 percent of the world’s banana trade – will become extinct when Panama Race IV, the fungus that has destroyed banana plantations around the world, arrives in Latin America. Attempts to find a disease-resistant replacement have generated some awesome names – Goldfinger, for one – but no leading contenders yet. Field trials on a GMO banana will begin in Kenya in 2014.

 Source and Photo: MSN News, 29th July, 2013
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