In recent years, citrus greening has made a $2 billion dent in the Florida economy. And with at least 80 percent of Florida’s citrus acreage affected, the incurable, highly contagious blight has sapped the life out of an industry that was once a major driver of the state’s economy.

Trees infected with bacterial diseases like citrus greening and citrus canker produce deformed, inedible fruit. These maladies kill trees and jobs alike. A decade ago, there were 8,000 citrus growers in Florida. Today, that number has been halved.

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and Soilcea, a Tampa-based agricultural technology startup, have teamed up to revitalize the industry and save Florida citrus.

With assistance from The Corridor’s Matching Grants Research Program (MGRP), the project takes a unique approach to creating greening- and canker-tolerant citrus trees.

“We’re using gene editing to advance the process of natural selection,” said Yianni Lagos, CEO of Soilcea. “We’re not introducing any new DNA. A traditional genetically modified object (GMO) takes a foreign gene – like an insect gene – and puts it in a plant. That would never happen in nature. What we’re doing is very different.”

Using gene editing technology, researchers target a very small section of the citrus gene and delete the single string of DNA that makes the tree susceptible to canker or greening. In nature, this kind of modification might occur spontaneously over a period of 30 to 40 years as weaker specimens fail to reproduce.

So far, the collaboration has resulted in a proof-of-concept demonstrating the possibility of creating canker-resistant trees. The team is working on regenerating a canker-tolerant plant from a single cell, as well as identifying promising genetic targets for citrus greening. Further help came when Soilcea secured its $25,000 Cade Museum Prize, the first-place reward of one of Florida’s premier startup competitions.

Institutional partnership is at the root of the project. The technology was developed by Nian Wang, a researcher at UF/IFAS, and is exclusively licensed to Soilcea. Meanwhile, Soilcea is a client of the University of South Florida’s Tampa Bay Technology Incubator, where it benefits from the incubator’s laboratory environment as well as its geographical proximity to nurseries and growers in the surrounding area.

Helping farmers in this area is the team’s motivation to succeed.

“We’re excited to get a solution into the hands of the citrus growers,” said Wang. “I feel that our method will be the easiest way for them to deal with these diseases.”

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