Genetic Engineering May Save the World- or at Least Mimosas
As a daughter of the great (though occasionally batshit) state of Florida, this story is close to my
stomach heart. The Florida orange is in some serious trouble due to a bacterial disease called citrus greening, or huanglongbing (HLB).
Transmitted by a bite from the invasive Asian citrus physllid, HLB takes root in the roots (sorry) of the tree and spreads to the trunk where it chokes off the upper elements, leaving the leaves (sorry again) and fruits, nutritionally deprived. This causes the oranges to remain in a perpetually ‘unripe’ state; sour, green, and hard. Perhaps worse than sucky oranges, the disease also kills the tree when it has run its course. HLB first emerged in Florida in 2005 and has since destroyed 90,000 acres of Florida groves and been found in every every citrus-growing county in the state.
There is some hope for us orange-lovers in the form of brilliant scientists like Erik Mirkov. Mirkov, a plant pathologist at Texas A&M, has figured out a way to create trees resistant to HLB by genetically modifying them with spinach genes. This research began in the year 2000 as an attempt to combat the citrus canker that ravaged Floridian orchards. After the discovery of citrus greening the focus of the research shifted to bacteria defense. Spanish scientists had discovered a defensive protein in spinach that, after incorporation into a citrus tree, might create resistance to several diseases.
This means that Floridians can have their juice and drink it too, if only they get used to the idea that GMOs aren’t intrinsically bad, and that they can even solve the agricultural issues we face now and in the future.
This might be the harder part, though it might be one of the last options. Last year the Florida orange crop was the smallest it has been in three decades, while orange groves are losing ground (:-P) to development projects and the sentiment that fruit juice is as unhealthy as soda. As an expert foodie however, I maintain orange juice is an essential part of every Sunday brunch. Maybe Mirkov eventually can get the oranges to come with the champagne already inside.
N.B. There are several other strategies emerging to save the oranges. One, led by entomologist David Morgan for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, involves the release of parasitic wasps from Pakistan that feed on phsyllids. Another attempts to replace the phyllids with versions that can’t transmit HLB. You can read more about HLB and potential solutions in this excellent article on the subject by Paul Voosen for National Geographic, which is the original source for this post.
Image is “Citrus fruits” by Scott Bauer, USDA – This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K7226-29 (next). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.