Highlands Growers Learn More About Crop Transformation Center

Daniel Cooper Events, HLB Management

Charlie Messina, director of the new UF/IFAS Crop Transformation Center, was the keynote speaker during the annual meeting of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.

The Highlands County Citrus Growers Association hosted its annual meeting and banquet in early March in Sebring, Florida. The event was well attended. Growers were mostly in good spirits, hoping that trunk-injection therapy will be the bridge to the next breakthrough to return citrus production and quality to viable levels.

Most believe the ultimate HLB solution will come in the form of a citrus tree that is highly tolerant or resistant to the disease. Keynote speaker Charlie Messina spoke about efforts to develop such a tree.

Messina is the director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Crop Transformation Center. The center was established last year, and its first target is the fight against HLB. The center will bring researchers together in the search for HLB resistance using gene editing, CRISPR and other approaches. These technologies can transform plants to be resistant to diseases, have improved nutritional values, enhanced capability to withstand environmental conditions and more.

Messina, who has a background both in academia and the private sector, said the search for HLB solutions should follow a more private-sector approach rather than that of academia. He said the center will move more urgently toward developing real solutions that can get into growers’ hands more quickly. He has firsthand experience in such an approach, having worked for Corteva in the company’s gene-editing and crop-improvement groups.

“I realized when I came to UF/IFAS that there are some of the best scientists in the world working on this citrus problem,” he said. “This center will allow them to collaborate more closely as a team to move research along with the goal of finding solutions to HLB.”

Messina encouraged growers to engage with the Crop Transformation Center to provide feedback on their research and what they need in the groves.

To learn more about the new center, see the Citrus Industry February cover story.

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