Trialing Tree Immunizations for HLB, Xylella

Josh McGillHLB Management, International, Research

Australia’s Hort Innovation has announced an $8.7 million investment to trial tree immunizations that protect Australia’s horticulture industries against the deadly huanglongbing (HLB) and Xylella diseases (including citrus variegated chlorosis). Hort Innovation is a grower-owned, not-for-profit research and development corporation for Australia’s horticulture industry.

tree immunizations
Asian citrus psyllids spread HLB disease.
(Photo by Jeffrey W. Lotz, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,

Hort Innovation Chief Executive Brett Fifield said the investment aims to safeguard key Australian horticulture industries by immunizing trees with RNA-based technology, similar to coronavirus vaccines for humans. The RNA immunizations cause the tree’s cells to produce chemicals targeting specific pathogens. 

“Xylella and HLB are two of the most threatening bacteria in fruit and nut trees worldwide, and if they found their way into Australia, the results would be catastrophic,” Fifield said. “While these threats are not in Australia currently, being ready is crucial. This project is about preparedness and adds to the more than $60 million investment Hort Innovation is delivering in biosecurity measures to support and protect Australia’s $15.2 billion horticulture industries. The trial will begin with citrus and table grapes, and we will explore opportunities for this technology in almonds, avocados, olives and summerfruit.” 

The trial will be delivered through Hort Innovation and led by the United States-based agricultural biotechnology company Silvec Biologics alongside the University of Queensland. The trial will employ a method developed by Silvec Biologics to immunize trees, vines and bushes against diseases. The researchers will combine this technology with elements of BioClay to improve how trees are immunized. 

Andrew Harty, regional operations manager at Costa Group, Australia’s largest citrus grower, said research to prevent disease is crucial in preparing the horticulture industry for potential outbreaks. “Thankfully in Australia we do not have either Xylella or HLB, but as an industry we have to always think ahead,” Harty said. “This kind of research, if deployed at scale, could have a huge impact in protecting Australia’s citrus industry.” 

Silvec Biologics President Rafael Simon said the company is looking forward to partnering with the University of Queensland to combine the BioClay platform with their vector technology. “The main challenge for RNA-based technology is not the development of the active ingredient, but rather the delivery mechanism,” Simon said. “We will leverage the Australian-developed BioClay platform to improve the introduction of our vectors into trees. The BioClay platform protects the double-stranded RNA, enhancing the active ingredient delivery into trees, and has been validated for viruses, insect pests and fungi in multiple crop-host systems.” 

Source: Hort Innovation

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