WINTERHAVE, Fla. – 70-thousand Florida jobs are at stake if the citrus industry goes under and citrus greening disease is a serious threat.
A couple of scientists tell our I-Team they may have found a cure, but they say something is keeping that cure from reaching growers.
“My granddaddy started our fruit company back in the 1950’s, so I would be a third generation,” said Sean Paul, showing us his Polk County grove.
“It’s our family. It’s what we know. It’s what we breathe. It’s what we do,” Paul said.
Citrus greening disease is now threatening all that.
“Most of the time it looks like the tree is starving,” he said, pointing out yellowed leaves and dropped fruit that could be early indicators of citrus greening.
The disease causes oranges not to ripen. Some drop off the tree and what’s usable is small.
Citrus production in Florida has dropped by 40 percent in the last decade, which is bad news for 70,000 people who work in the industry which has a $9 Billion annual economic impact.
“If we don’t get a handle on this within five years, the crop’s gonna be gone,” said Joe Ahrens, former president of the Florida Citrus Council.
He and his business partner Daryl Thompson were nominated for the Nobel Prize this year for their scientific breakthroughs in finding a cure for Ebola disease.
While doing research deep in the Everglades four years ago, they noticed something unusual about the citrus trees that grew there.
“They’re very big trees and they have no blemishes on them whatsoever,” said Thompson.
“They’re just very healthy. We’ve never seen anything on them,” said Ahrens.
Samples of the trees contained fungi called “endophytes”.
“The little fungus gets a protected place to live, gets a food source and in return, the host tree gets protected from diseases,” said Ahrens.
“They manufacture compounds that act almost like antibiotics,” said Thompson. “When we went into standard orange groves, there was none.”
Ahrens and Thompson believe endophytes once protected all citrus trees in Florida, but were gradually stripped away by fertilizer and insecticides.
They believe endophytes can easily be reproduced in a lab, then sprayed or injected into trees, potentially protecting whole groves in a matter of days.
The scientists contacted Marrone Labs in California, where founder Dr. Pam Marrone works with endophytes.
Ahrens and Thompson then arranged for Marrone to send samples to the Lake Alfred-based Florida Citrus Research Development Foundation to see if those strains stopped greening.
They say they made the initial introductions between Marrone and the CRDF.
CRDF is affiliated with the University of Florida and is funded by taxes on citrus producers and research grants.
It has an operating budget of about $17 Million annually.
“They’re the only place we could test this at, so we didn’t have a choice,” said Thompson.
In a July 2014 email, CRDF Director Tom Turpen thanked Joe Ahrens “for making the connection.”
In an email he sent at around the same time, he told Pam Marrone “The industry faces great uncertainty right now. So, it would be ideal to find something in your product library that can be repurposed to treat this disease.”