Clemson professor receives $4.3 million grant to help develop cure for Huanglongbing


    An insect-borne bacterial disease that has devastated citrus crops around the world for nearly a century may have finally met its match.

    Feng Luo, an associate professor in Clemson University’s School of Computing, will lead a $4.3 million study aimed at halting Huanglongbing (HLB).

    The study will be funded for five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It is part of a $13.6 million program to combat HLB.

    “This is a huge problem, especially in Florida,” said Luo, a native of China who joined Clemson 10 years ago after earning his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Dallas. “We are very excited about our proposal and believe [our research] is promising.”

    HLB was discovered in China in 1919. Also known as “yellow dragon disease,” it is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a bug that is about the size of a grain of rice.


    During its nymph cycle, the psyllid consumes the sap of a citrus plants leaves and stems, and injects a salivary toxin.

    An infected plant’s leaves can curl or twist and turn a blotchy yellow. Fruit is typically lopsided, mostly green and bitter. HLB usually kills the plant in about three to five years.

    Luo said HLB has infected about 75 percent of Florida’s $9 billion per year citrus industry. The disease has impacted ten other states, including South Carolina.

    Four years ago, Luo put his expertise in bioinformatics to work to study the disease. He said research found that certain plants are more resistant to HLB.

    The grant will allow for more genomic testing that could help create new breeding lines that are resistant to the disease and still produce quality fruit.

    “Genetic change is the only kind of change that can last,” Luo said.

    Luo said he will work with a team of research partners in Florida, Texas and California. That team will work closely with farmers and growers in those states.

    “HLB poses a serious threat to the nation’s citrus industry,” said Zhanao Deng, a professor and plant breeder at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, who is one of Luo’s co-investigators. “Many growers have had to give up because it has been so bad… We’re all pleased to be working together to find a solution.”


    Luo’s other research partners include Frederick Gmitter Jr., and Liliana Cano with the University of Florida; Yongping Duan and MaryLou Polek with the USDA; and Olufemi Alabi at Texas A&M University.

    Clemson’s Palmetto Cluster, a world-class supercomputer, will enable the project, the university said.

    “This is absolutely critical research for the citrus industry and anyone who enjoys citrus products,” said Douglas Hirt, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Clemson, in a statement. “With Dr. Luo and the Palmetto Cluster, Clemson University is well-positioned to play a leadership role in tackling this global problem.”

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