Huanglongbing (HLB) disease, also known as ‘citrus greening disease’, is one of the gravest dangers to citrus yields, currently threatening to devastate the citrus industry worldwide. HLB is an incurable disease caused by bacteria transmitted by a small insect, the Asian citrus psyllid. Once infected, the bacteria spreads throughout the citrus trees, causing the leaves to wilt and the fruit to become inedible. 

Citrus crops are high value as the fruits have become a diet staple across a wide array of cultures, cuisines and geographies. As highly nutrient-dense foodstuffs, citrus fruits are particularly essential in developing countries where micronutrient deficiencies are widespread.

If left undetected, HLB can quickly spread through large citrus crops and, as there is currently no known treatment, there is no alternative but to remove and destroy the infected trees – posing a significant and immediate threat to the US$ 3.3 bn a year worldwide citrus industry. It has already decimated groves in Asia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Florida.

The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced its 2019 Solutions grantees. As a recipient of one of the Solutions grants, one research team will be taking on the challenge to develop new technology for early detection of HLB infection in citrus trees.

Led by MIT led by Karen Gleason, Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, the team’s approach will be:

“…to deploy a series of low-cost, high-sensitivity sensors that can be used on-site and which are attuned to volatile organic compounds emitted by citrus trees that change in concentration during early-stage HLB infection when trees do not yet exhibit visible symptoms[1].”  

The resulting data will be used by the team to develop a high-accuracy prediction system to allow for early detection and thus to control outbreaks and save farmers’ livelihoods. Read more about the research project here.

Launched in 2014 by MIT and Community Jameel, the J-WAFS Solutions program provides commercialization grants to help develop products and services that will have a significant impact on water and food security. In addition to the year-long financial support, grantees are provided with mentorship from industry partners and additional networking and guidance, supporting the project teams as they advance their technologies toward commercialization.