Research Reveals a New Direction for Halting the Citrus Greening Epidemic

Ithaca, New York, (April 2, 2018) – New clues to how the bacteria associated with citrus greening infect the only insect that carries them could lead to a way to block the microbes’ spread from tree to tree, according to a study in Infection and Immunity by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) scientists.

Citrus greening, also known as “huanglongbing,” is a serious disease dramatically affecting citrus production across the world. Trees with this disease all die after only a few years. Citrus greening has been detected in every citrus-producing county in Florida, throughout the southern citrus growing states and in isolated spots in southern California. There is no effective prevention or cure.

The disease is associated with the bacterium Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, CLas for short, which is spread from tree to tree only by a tiny insect vector—the Asian citrus psyllid. If CLas cannot infect the psyllid, its ability to spread citrus greening is halted.

With the long-term goal of disrupting this CLas-Asian citrus psyllid interaction, research molecular biologist and BTI professor Michelle Heck, with the ARS Emerging Pests and Pathogens Research Laboratory, and BTI researcher Marina Mann focused on an important point: not all psyllids spread CLas equally well.

To be spread by the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) effectively, the bacteria must pass through the cells lining the insect’s gut and multiply. Scientists in Heck’s lab had previously shown that the gut cells of adult ACP show severe stress responses when infected by CLas. The cell nuclei become fragmented, and some cells react to the point of dying, allowing the bacteria to move out of the psyllid and into the tree.

Now, the researchers have found that, unlike adult psyllids, young psyllid nymphs appear to be resistant to the effects of exposure to CLas, and their nuclei rarely reach the same level of disruption. This means CLas cannot enter psyllid gut cells to multiply.

The next step will be to identify the mechanism for this resistance in the nymphs so that it might be manipulated to also halt the spread of CLas by the adults. An important clue lies in how psyllid nymphs interact with symbiotic bacteria in their gut, especially Wolbachia pipientis.

Many insects are hosts for Wolbachia and often depend on these bacteria for important benefits—much like how human health depends on gut bacteria. In their study, Mann and Heck showed that in psyllid nymphs, Wolbachia and CLas are commonly found within the same cells.

The authors hypothesize that, in accommodating the beneficial bacteria, the nymphs also let in more CLas. This is supported by their finding that CLas levels in psyllid nymphs are strongly correlated with Wolbachia levels. Though this link remains to be tested directly, understanding its mechanism could yield an important target for disrupting CLas-psyllid interaction.

“CLas exploits the way nymph and adult psyllids differ in their guts to gain entry into its insect vector,” Heck said. “We may be able to use this new foothold in our understanding to develop ways to block transmission by insects in the citrus grove.”

If this works, “citrus growers will be in a much better situation in terms of disease control and saving the U.S. citrus industry,” said Dan Dreyer, Chairman of the California Citrus Research Board, which funds this and other research aimed at developing a management strategy for citrus greening.

“There are still many unanswered questions about CLas, how it is acquired and transmitted via the Asian citrus psyllid, and how it causes the disease,” continued Dreyer. “The more we learn about CLas and its vector, the closer we will get to moving citrus production past the threat of citrus greening.”

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.

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