- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - A group of University of Florida researchers are using steam in an attempt to kill a deadly citrus disease that’s ravaging the state’s groves.

Researchers at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences said Thursday they’ve tented and then enveloped trees in 136-degree steam for about 30 seconds in an attempt to kill citrus greening bacteria.

Citrus greening is a bacteria spread by the Asian Citrus Psyllid. The disease begins in the root and starves the tree of nutrients, eventually killing the tree.

Florida’s citrus growers have been the hardest-hit in the U.S. and researchers are working furiously to come up with a vaccine or cure.

Researcher Reza Ehsani said the steam treatment is not a cure for greening because it cannot reach the trees’ root system.

The steam heat kills the bacteria, and while it doesn’t cure the tree entirely from the disease, it does extend the tree’s lifespan, allowing a grower to harvest more fruit.

The treatment also might ultimately attract more bacteria-carrying psyllids. Ehsani said trees treated with steam usually drop their old leaves and “a significant number of new shoots develop on the tree.”

Those new shoots then attract the psyllid, the bug that carries the bacteria - and then the chances of reinfection are high.

Ehsani will present his findings Friday at the International Citrus Beverage Conference in Clearwater.

On Wednesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that a federal Tree Assistance Program is now being extended to Florida growers affected by citrus greening.

The citrus industry contributes $9 billion per year to the state’s economy and supports about 76,000 jobs.

Most of Florida’s oranges are used for juice, unlike California oranges which are destined for the fresh fruit market.

According to the USDA, the U.S. citrus crop was worth $3.15 billion in the 2012-2013 growing season, down 15 percent from the previous season. The value of the Florida citrus crop was $1.53 billion in the 2012-2013 growing season, and the state comprised 63 percent of all U.S. citrus production.

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