New HLB Research Facility in Riverside

Tacy Callies California Corner

HLBBy Len Wilcox

There’s a new research facility funded by California citrus growers to help combat huanglongbing (HLB), also known as citrus greening disease. The facility, located in Riverside, California, is the result of a 3-year cooperative effort of the University of California, Riverside (UC Riverside) and California citrus growers.

Using funds provided by members of California Citrus Mutual (CCM), UC Riverside constructed the $8 million facility to study highly contagious diseases in citrus trees. The facility will be used to research new ways to protect California’s $3.3 billion citrus industry from HLB.

This disease is highly contagious and has devastated citrus trees in Florida, South America and Asia, and has been found in Texas and California.

The new biosafety level 3 (BLS-3) facility is designed to allow research scientists to safely work with plant pathogens and not risk spreading the disease to commercial groves or residential trees in the area.

About four years ago, UC Riverside and the California citrus industry recognized there was a need for a high-level containment facility to perform critical citrus research in California.

While substantial research into controlling HLB in citrus is happening in Florida and at UC Davis, the Florida studies are conducted under soil and weather conditions that are specific to Florida. The UC Davis facilities are working on serious issues in other commodities, and room for citrus studies is limited, even though need is high. Therefore, several years ago UC Riverside applied for federal funds to build the facility. However, federal money has not been made available for the project. In 2016, CCM informed its member growers of the need.

“We felt that if we were going to protect ourselves, we better take the lead,” Joel Nelsen, president of CCM, said in a 2016 interview. “We worked with Wonderful Citrus initially and then I contacted the balance of the industry and received commitments for funding.”

His effort paid off. Now, Nelson is watching the lengthy construction and installation project coming to completion.

“The facility is up. We are now installing lab equipment. There’s office equipment and some lab items, but we are waiting for some specialized equipment to arrive,” Nelson said. “We will then obtain an inspection from the county for a certificate of occupancy, then put our biosafety measures in place for inspection by the USDA. After we get our USDA permit, we will be operational.”

UC Riverside professor Georgios Vidalakis, who is an Extension specialist, plant pathologist and the director of the Citrus Clonal Protection Program, believes the new facility will be a major boon to the citrus industry. “UC Riverside scientists have a century-old history in citrus research and having access to a BSL-3 facility for HLB research is literally untying their hands behind their backs and will allow them to perform important research such as tolerance and resistance, diagnostics and epidemiology,” he said.

Vidalakis also had a positive message for California’s citrus industry: “This will be the tenth year in our ACP (Asian citrus psyllid) and HLB fight in California, and I know that the uncertainty for the future and the constant bombardment of information and recent positive HLB finds in Southern California have been creating fatigue for many growers. My message to everyone in the citrus industry is keep it up; you are making history. California is the only place in the world that 10 years after the ACP introduction, there is no HLB epidemic in commercial citrus orchards.”

Vidalakis believes this is a remarkable achievement. He credits the active measures taken by the industry to understand and control the disease.

“You are making history because you took all the necessary proactive steps to slow down the disease. And if you continue this aggressive strategy, and especially after the introduction of the African citrus psyllid in the Iberian Peninsula, California may be one of the few places in the Northern Hemisphere that will produce first-class fruit for the fresh market,” Vidalakis said. “It is not a coincidence that last year California produced for the first time in history 51 percent of the nation’s citrus. It is a direct result of all the investment you are making to fight against ACP and HLB and the investment you are making in your businesses.”

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About the Author

Len Wilcox

Correspondent at Large for Citrus Industry Magazine and AgNet West