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Citrus research board ramps up to deal with deadly citrus disease

Ramping up efforts on early detection of the deadly Asian citrus psyllid, the California Citrus Research Board is creating an operations department with experienced plant pathologist Mary Lou Polek at its helm.

Pole is responsible for implementing an industry-funded action program against this invasive insect and the catastrophic citrus plant disease it can carry, Huanglongbing (HLB), also known as citrus greening. Polek’s first priority will be setting up new diagnostic laboratories at several locations in the state to enable mass sampling of psyllids and plant material.

The Asian citrus psyllid was first detected in San Diego, Calif., at the end of August and has since been found at several other locations in San Diego and Imperial counties.

The creation of the operations department follows the passage of a grower referendum conducted for California Citrus Research Board by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, allowing for additional industry funding to be directed toward this threat.

California Citrus Research Board President Ted Batkin reports the grower-funded initiative will be focused on early detection and is designed to augment the programs of the county agricultural commissioners, CDFA and USDA, which are working to detect and control the infestation.

“Thankfully, no psyllids found in California have been confirmed carriers of HLB, but we are taking our cues from Florida, where some hard lessons have been learned,” said Batkin.

“The psyllid was first found in Florida in 1998, but little action was taken because the assumption was made that the bacteria that causes HLB wasn’t present. That assumption was terribly wrong, and by the time the first infected trees were found in 2005, the disease was already too widespread to contain. Today, both the insect and the tree-killing disease are found in every citrus-producing county in Florida.”

Once a tree is infected with this plant disease, there is no cure and the tree will decline until it dies. HLB-infected trees produce bitter, inedible fruit. All citrus varieties are susceptible.

The operations department will also provide additional scouting teams to coordinate with the county, state and federal teams, work with the citrus nursery industry and retail nurseries to sample and test nursery stock, and provide consulting services for psyllid population control programs.

“MaryLou brings to this position more than 30 years of experience in plant disease diagnostics and laboratory management, and she has specialized in citrus plant diseases, including HLB,” Batkin said. “This experience will be invaluable as we continue our efforts to stay in front of this disease and prevent it from establishing in our state.

“HLB can be stopped, and our new operations department headed by MaryLou will be key to accomplishing this goal.”

Polek currently serves on the executive committee of and is chair of the science and technology advisory committee of California’s Statewide HLB Task Force. She joins the California Citrus Research Board following a 14-year tenure at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, where she served in both the Integrated Pest Control and Pest Detection and Emergency Projects branches. Most recently, she served as program manager and plant pathologist for the Central California Tristeza Eradication Agency.

Prior to her association with CDFA, Polek was a researcher at the University of California Riverside in the plant pathology and botany and plant sciences departments, and earlier in her career she was an instructor for biology laboratory classes at Saddleback College. Polek earned her doctorate in plant pathology from UC Riverside.

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