Researchers with several organizations are in the early stages of investigating the use of neuropeptides found in Asian citrus psyllids as the source for biocontrols for HLB disease. The researchers are with the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) at Cornell University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and the University of Washington. The research team is led by BTI faculty member Michelle Heck.
Laura Fleites, a research associate at BTI, focused on neuropeptides because they function as hormones in hemipteran insects — a class that includes psyllids — to regulate growth, development and other biological functions.
“If we could develop an insecticide that is specific for Asian citrus psyllids based on one of the insect’s own neuropeptides, then we could protect citrus trees” from the Asian citrus psyllids, said Heck.
Fleites and the team characterized the full array of peptides found in the psyllids and identified 122 potential neuropeptides. While promising, the findings offer only potential starting points for combatting HLB, because unmodified insect-derived neuropeptides are not suited for use as insecticides in citrus groves.
To turn the findings into a usable product, the team is now part of a collaboration aimed at identifying the best psyllid-derived neuropeptide for development. The team will then stabilize the peptide and decide the optimum method for delivering the insecticidal molecule to citrus trees — whether as a spray, by engineering trees to make the peptides themselves or by some other method.
For the study, Fleites developed new extraction and analysis methods other researchers could use in their investigations of insect peptides.
Funding for the project came from a USDA Specialty Crops Grant and from the USDA-ARS. “Thanks to USDA support, I was able to develop techniques that enable the identification of small, functional insect peptides separately from their larger, inactive precursors,” Fleites said. “Because these techniques aren’t specific to psyllids, they may be useful for identifying neuropeptides in other hemipteran insects to protect crop plants.”
See a full article from Cornell University about the research here.
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