Could a Seed Bank Be Called Into Action to Save Florida’s Orange Trees?

Source, Wikipedia // Public Domain 
Source, Wikipedia // Public Domain  / Source, Wikipedia // Public Domain 

Florida’s flailing citrus industry would make Anita Bryant cry. Since 2005, the state’s orange trees have been dying off at a precipitous rate. As CNN's Moni Basu reports, the trees face a small yet insidious foe: a bug called the Asian citrus psyllid, which feeds on their leaves and stems. The bug carries a bacterial disease called citrus greening disease, known as huanglingbing in Chinese, that causes the trees to produce bitter, misshapen fruit. The disease spreads quickly—too quickly for researchers to find a cure.

Florida provides 59 percent of America’s oranges. What steps can growers take to save their trees, and the $10 billion industry?

Some growers use organic treatments to keep the bugs at bay, Basu writes. Others toy with the idea of using genetically modified strains of citrus. Scientists have stepped in, and they’ve tried bactericides and heat therapy, and have attempted to breed disease-tolerant trees that can bear fruit even while infected.

Meanwhile, the future of citrus might lie dormant in the seed bank at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. There, geneticists preserve seeds, graftable buds, and semen from hundreds of thousands of animal and plant species that are important to agriculture—including citrus trees.

At the Center—which is designed to withstand natural disasters and terrorist assaults—plant physiologists freeze tiny bits cut from the plant’s tips in liquid nitrogen. Protected from bacteria, pests, and other ravages, these tips can later be unfrozen and grafted on to rootstock to grow new trees. This way, if citrus greening does conquer America’s orange crops, growers can start again from scratch.

Could seed banks save orange trees and other threatened food sources? The jury's still out, but it still looks to be the last-case scenario when all other ideas fail. Seed banks could help researchers "conserve materials before they are lost forever," plant physiologist Gayle Volk tells CNN.

Makes you value your morning glass of O.J. a little more, huh?