Natural chemical found in Australian finger lime might protect orange groves from deadly citrus greening disease

Credit: Kate Holmes
Credit: Kate Holmes

Huanglongbing, HLB, or citrus greening has multiple names, but one ultimate result: bitter and worthless citrus fruits. It has wiped out citrus orchards across the globe, causing billions in annual production losses.

All commercially important citrus varieties are susceptible to it, and there is no effective tool to treat HLB-positive trees, or to prevent new infections.

However, new UC Riverside research shows that a naturally occurring peptide found in HLB-tolerant citrus relatives, such as Australian finger lime, can not only kill the bacteria that causes the disease, it can also activate the plant’s own immune system to inhibit new HLB infection. Few treatments can do both.

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In addition to its efficacy against the bacterium, the stable anti-microbial peptide, or SAMP, offers a number of benefits over current control methods. For one, as the name implies, it remains stable and active even when used in 130-degree heat, unlike most antibiotic sprays that are heat sensitive — an important attribute for citrus orchards in hot climates like Florida and parts of California.

In addition, the peptide is much safer for the environment than other synthetic treatments. “Because it’s in the finger lime fruit, people have eaten this peptide for hundreds of years,” [geneticist Hailing] Jin said.

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