Editor’s Note: This is the first in series of six Q&As with the 2013 Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award winner Bobby Barben. The Avon Park-based grower also serves as the chairman of the Research Management Committee of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation (CRDF).
What are some innovative ways the CRDF is encouraging research for solutions to HLB?
A: “We put on a contest in which we asked researchers to send us materials that might have antibiotic activity against HLB. The contest would reward some funding for further research on materials that appeared promising. We received about 100 different submissions, and out of those, 10 or 12 showed some sort of activity against the bacteria.
Now the question is can we find a cost-effective way to get these materials delivered into the trees? Will it kill the HLB bacteria and clean out the phloem in the tree where the bacteria moves? I believe there is a time stamp on all these HLB-infected trees, so we’ve got to come up with some breakthroughs to help keep them alive. The contest was just one way to facilitate finding new ideas and potential solutions to HLB.
What are some of the most frustrating research challenges in the fight against HLB?
A: Overall, for growers, we want solutions now and it is hard to accept the rigors of scientific work. We’ve thrown a lot of money at the problem and want to see results fast, but unfortunately, sometimes science doesn’t work that way. Each project builds our knowledge for the next project. I honestly believe we will find a game-changer related to HLB. I just hope it comes quickly enough to save some farms on the edge.
Probably one of most specific examples of frustration has been our inability to culture the bacteria, Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, which causes HLB. We are fortunate that Dr. Michael Davis and his group at UF/IFAS have cultured Liberibacter crescens, which has about 70% overlap to the HLB bacteria. It could help us learn more and get closer to get a good culture. This is a pure science play and a ways off from help in our groves, but it would represent a big breakthrough.