Researchers close to a breakthrough in fight against citrus greening disease

Heat treatment showing positive results

FT. PIERCE, Fla. - Researchers are turning up the heat on the deadly disease that's killing Florida's $9 billion citrus industry.

At a lab in Ft. Pierce, a team of scientists are on the brink of a breakthrough, using heat treatment to heal citrus trees deathly ill from citrus greening disease.

"Citrus greening is our number one priority at the moment," said Dr. Tim Gattwald, research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture research center in Ft. Pierce.

In a laboratory setting, a team of researchers has already successfully used heat to kill most of the greening bacteria in a sick tree -- turning it healthy again just months later.

Right now, they're trying to figure out how to transfer their research into the field so commercial citrus growers can put it to use.

Growers are eager to use the treatment after coming off one of the worst seasons ever due to the disease.

Plastic tents, no different than camping tents, appear to do the trick. Researchers found cooking sick trees in the Florida sun for three days straight kills most of the greening bacteria.

It gets so hot some of the leaves develop sun burn, die and eventually fall off.

"This isn't a complete cure. We're hoping this will buy time to save the industry until a more permanent solution comes along," said Dr. Cheryl Armstrong, one of the researchers working on the parameters for heat treatment.

Armstrong said while they continue to study the effects of the treatment, engineers are figuring out a more practical approach for growers.

If growers used the tent method, it would be very costly and time consuming. They would like to find a way to wrap plastic sheeting around an entire row of trees, instead of one tree at a time.

Researchers are also studying dripping antibiotics into the trunk of a sick tree, but even if they see positive results, it would take years for approval.

"For us, it's about developing the technology," said Dr. PingYoung Duan, who's in charge of the research. "I think it's good progress for finding a solution for growers."

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