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June 18, 2006

Fighting Back Against Citrus Canker

Not so long I ago I discussed the losing battle against Citrus Canker here in Florida. This evening I stumbled across an article in the Sun-Sentinel (I think it's Ft. Lauderdale, but through the wonder of the internet there's no need to know) discussing genetic efforts to combat the disease. I don't know if this battle is winnable any time soon, but if it is, it'll probably be won by these people, the folks at the University of Florida research center in Lake Alfred.

I know there are elements out there who aren't going to be happy with any genetic engineering solution, but citrus is one place where standard breeding isn't an attractive option, given the difficulties involved. I have been critical from time to time of the mindset that seems to claim that genetic engineering is the solution to all our problems, and that breeding is an out-dated thing of the past. I think that oversells genetic engineering and undersells the power of breeding. But I think this is the sort of situation that genetic engineering was tailor-made for: not replacing breeding, but solving the specific problems that breeding can't readily solve. In sweet orange you have a crop where not only is it extremely difficult to even get hybrid seedlings, but also an extremely limited germplasm base without the resistance you need anyway. Sure one can, and should work to overcome these barriers and to improve the working material through hybridization with outside species, but that's a long, hard process, and this problem is here, now. And while the magic bullet approach of genetic engineering may not be a perfect solution, it's attainable in the short term.

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