"Getting good quality data from this kind of approach is actually quite challenging to figure out,” Gang said. "But once you learn how to do it, you can do it relatively routinely; because of that, we were invited to be part of this project.”

Once Gang and his colleagues obtain gene expression data, they make it available in a database for their collaborators to use.

"We hope this data can be used to develop a 'nupsyllid' (as in ‘new-psyllid’) that will be unable to transmit or harbor the citrus greening bacteria,” Gang said.

The researchers are also turning to genetic engineering as a last resort weapon against citrus greening: "We can shut off genes that are involved in transmission of the bacterium,” said Gang. Since citrus plants have no inherent defense and in view of the fact that consumers reject genetically engineered food, the research team is focused on modifying the disease-transmitting pest.

Because citrus greening disease infects and weakens its insect host, Gang said that "nupsyllids” are expected to outcompete and eventually replace the disease-spreading psyllids.

Insuring the economic and horticultural health and sustainability of the U.S. citrus industry is the goal of the USDA-funded five-year project.

"The investment the USDA is putting into this project is really very small compared to the economic damage already caused by this disease and is trivial compared to the potential damage that could be caused down the road,” Gang said. "It’s one of those things where we don’t really have a choice. If we don’t do something, all of the citrus trees in the U.S. will likely be dead within 10-20 years.”

That’s why he and his colleagues are seeking a workable genetic solution to the citrus greening challenge, Gang said: "We’re kind of proud of the fact that it’s difficult to do and we’re good at it.”

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