A major U.S. agricultural research collaboration is under way, funded in part through a $9 million USDA grant, which has the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) pest directly in the crosshairs.

Researchers are exploring ways to physically alter the psyllid as one way to rid the U.S citrus industry from the psyllid-transmitted pathogen Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus which causes the disease Huanglongbing (HLB), also known as citrus greening.

Currently, the psyllid takes up Liberibacter bacteria into its body during feeding, where it reproduces and transfers the bacteria to other trees as the insect feeds on leaves and branches.

The end result is an HLB-infected tree. Every tree infected by HLB worldwide has died.

HLB has devastated commercial and residential citrus trees in Florida. The psyllid appears first before the disease is found.

Multi-state and institution research efforts funded by the USDA grant hope to uncover multiple ways to prevent the insect - less than one-tenth-inch long in size – from transferring bacteria from an infected tree to a non-infected tree.

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One of the research groups involved in this cooperative effort is located at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson.

Perched atop the College of Agriculture’s fourth floor in Forbes Hall, UA virologist and vector biologist Judith Brown and her research team utilize complex technology to determine ways to prevent establishment, multiplication, and transmission processes which lead to psyllid transmission of the bacteria.

“The ultimate goal is to eliminate the psyllid’s ability to harbor the bacterium and transmit it to the tree,” Brown said.

Brown’s team is drawing on six years of research on the related potato psyllid, plus more than three years of research already conducted on the citrus psyllid.

The project’s plan of attack is to genetically alter the insect to produce small interfering ribonucleic acids(RNAs) which attack genes crucial to bacterial survival in the psyllid.