Genetic Engineering Could Turn Agricultural Virus Into Useful Weapon

An agricultural virus that was once feared by citrus farmers may turn out to be the best hope for an industry that is desperately trying to tackle an even more serious problem. It is through the marvels of genetic engineering that one virus has been modified for the purpose of destroying the other one.

The citrus tristeza virus, or CTV, had previously caused trouble for citrus farmers, but the disease has been eclipsed by the problem of citrus greening. Produced by a specific type of bacteria and spread by certain flying insects, citrus greening causes trees to produce fruits that are greenish and misshapen in appearance and bitter in taste. Although the disease had been reported in other parts of the world, citrus greening was first observed in the United States in 2005 and has since ravaged the fruit-growing regions of the South.

In battling greening, one produce company plans to graft tree limbs containing the modified CTV virus. The firm has requested permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to employ this technique, which will have to be reviewed to determine whether it poses any environmental risks. If approved, this will be the first commercial use of CTV as a sort of inoculation to deal with another type of agricultural disease. More information about the CTV technique is available at

Using other types of genetic engineering, farmers have been able to provide some protection to their citrus products. One method allowed growers to produce a reasonable number of sweet and round oranges, provided that the trees were properly maintained. An engineered form of spinach has also shown success in dealing with citrus greening. If successful, the CTV technique may help reduce the stigma that has in the past been associated with genetic engineering. Since the method does not actually alter the fruits that are produced from the modified trees, some farmers could in fact claim the final products are not in themselves genetically engineered, which could be an important selling point.

The entire process could take at least two years to yield results, with time being the greatest enemy to citrus farmers. Many hope that the technique will prove successful in wiping out citrus greening before the disease wipes out the industry.


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