1 Mikeal Roose, a professor of genetics in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University or California, Riverside, holds up an insect trap being developed at the university to catch Asian citrus psyllids, which can spread the huanglongbing [HLB] bacteria among citrus trees. The trap Roose is holding in one of many variations built with a 3D printer by the researchers, however, he said, it still needs an attractant to draw in the psyllids. Photo by David Castellon

published on January 12, 2018 - 10:49 AM
Written by David Castellon

RIVERSIDE — It looks like any of the other office buildings under construction in this industrial park about four miles west of the University of California, Riverside.

But this 2,083-square-foot structure isn’t going to be a warehouse or a distributor for floor tile or any of the other sorts of businesses you might expect to find here.

Once the construction is completed in February or March, followed days or weeks later by inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other agencies, this will become the California Citrus Research Foundation’s first and only Biosafety Laboratory Level 3.

To put that into perspective, BSL-3 is the second highest safety designation in the U.S. for labs testing infectious materials — the same level that would be needed to test anthrax.

But the research planned for this facility will not be deadly, at least not to humans. Instead, this lab will be the site where researchers will directly research huanglongbing — or “HLB” — a bacteria deadly only to citrus trees and some related plants.

A tiny enemy

The disease is spread only by the Asian citrus psyllid, a gnat-sized insect that feeds on citrus leaves and tree stems and, if a tree is infected, can spread HLB to the next tree on which it feeds.

There is no cure for HLB or a method to grow new trees immune to it, making it capable of devastating or destroying California’s $3 billion citrus industry.

The disease already has devastated large swaths of citrus in some of the major citrus-growing regions of the world, including Brazil and China. And since the disease was found in crops in Florida — the nation’s largest citrus-producing state — in 2005 and spread to epidemic levels across the state, it’s estimated that HLB has wiped out as much as 60 to 70 percent of commercial citrus production there, causing billions of dollars in direct losses, as well as jobs.

So it’s not surprising that growers in California — where only a few infected trees have been detected in Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties so far — are directing million of dollars of their own money into research to find solutions to save California’s citrus industry.

Serious investment

That includes putting up nearly $8 million to build the new lab designed to contain the infectious bacteria being studied. California Citrus Mutual, the Exeter-based nonprofit trade association representing about 2,500 citrus growers across the state, has been collecting money to fund the lab and other research from growers’ self-imposed 9 cents per 40-pound carton fee and formed the California Citrus Research Foundation to administer the Riverside lab, as well as choose which research will be conducted there, while UC Riverside will oversee that research.

“You don’t want to let infectious materials out of your facility. The whole point is containment, so nothing can escape,” said Le’Kneitah Smith, interim high containment laboratory director for UC Riverside, who oversees containment for all the labs on campus and will do so for the new, off-campus lab.

The precautions are to prevent infected psyllids from getting out and infecting citrus trees in the area, which is why the lab is being built six miles from any commercial citrus groves.

But the primary precautions will be inside, Smith said, noting that outside of office and administrative areas, researchers working with infected trees and the containment areas for the insects will follow strict protocols.

Containment is key

“The minute you go into the lab, you cannot wear your normal street clothes. You’re going to go in a change room, you’re going to take off all of your clothes. You can’t even take your wedding ring. The only thing you can bring in are your eyeglasses,” and the researchers will dress in surgical scrubs, undergarments and shoes provided by the lab to do their work, she said.

Before leaving, they’ll dispose of their scrubs and other clothing and have to shower before leaving the lab or enclosed greenhouse, the latter of which will be built on an as-yet-undetermined date.

Even the wastewater from sinks and toilets in the building will be collected and heated to kill off bacteria before it’s released into the local sewer system, while storm runoff from the 1.06-acre parcel will be directed to a filtration system to keep any contaminants from spreading, Smith said as she watched workers installing that system.

From what she has heard, citrus researchers at UC Riverside and other places are excited at the prospect of having a new lab available to them to do their research involving HLB.

Another home base

Up until now, the only place available for research using HLB-infected plant material and insects was at a BSL-3 lab UC Davis, which isn’t dedicated solely to citrus research, but there’s a backlog of researchers who want to use it, Smith said.

The alternative has been to send material to researchers in Florida, where another BSL-3 lab exists, and because HLB is so widespread in groves there, researchers can do some fieldwork out in the open.

But that presents problems for California researchers, as transporting quarantined materials between states can be a lengthy process. In addition, researchers have noted that citrus varieties and conditions in California and Florida are distinctive enough that a solution or breakthrough in one region might not work for the other.

There is a lot of research being done or planned here in California that could benefit from the proximity of another BSL-3 lab, said Mikeal Roose, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside, adding that he is one of at least 20 researchers at the university likely to apply to do research work in the new lab.

Citrus industry stake

The Citrus Mutual plans to consider projects from anywhere to do research on HLB and California citrus at the new facility, under the stipulation that the industry will own a significant stake in what develops, to ensure none of the researchers can hoard successes and wouldn’t be able to gouge farmers, forcing them to pay exorbitant prices for the solutions they helped fund, Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen said.

“Even if we took over the entire Davis facility, which we couldn’t, it would still be difficult for us to manage the number of plants we need to test. And it will remain difficult once the new facility is open, but it will be a lot better than it is now,” Roose said.


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