Food Technology

Oranges Are Going Extinct – Unless a Gene from Spinach Can Help

The apocalypse is on its way – at least for oranges. Citrus greening, a disease that kills citrus trees and makes their fruit green, shrunken and inedibly bitter, is racing across the globe. The disease, which is transmitted from tree to tree by a tiny insect called a psyllid, was first reported in China in 1943. Since then, it’s spread across the globe, finally making its way to Florida’s famous orange groves in 2005.

There is no known cure. A worldwide search failed to turn up a naturally immune tree. Measures like burning infected trees and dousing the psyllids with insecticide slow but do not stop the disease. With such seemingly bleak odds, does this mean the end of oranges, lemons and grapefruits?

The New York Times has a engrossing long-read about the race to genetically engineer an orange that’s resistant to citrus greening. Not just a fascinating account about scientific efforts to save an entire industry, the piece also delves deeply into the place of GMOs in society. Perhaps the most enlightening aspect of the piece – and the most worrisome – is how often scientists have to perform a delicate marketing dance to get the public to accept their work.

Promising research into a fish gene, for instance, was outright abandoned because consumers were worried that the oranges would taste fishy. as was a gene from a pig (too creepy) and an entirely artificial gene (too fake). The researchers eventually landed on an antibiotic-producing gene from spinach, correctly reasoning that spinach-to-orange genetic transfer feels more “natural” to growers and consumers. These transgenic saplings are flourishing in experimental trials, and researchers are now investigating how to confer resistance on adult trees.

The article reveals a stark divide between scientific fact and public sentiment, as well as the astonishing promises of genetic manipulation. Of course, each new technology has unexpected consequences, but given the choice between GM oranges or and the commercial extinction of all citrus fruit, the former seems like the far less controversial option. Ultimately, however, the market, not science, will decide whether consumers are ready for crisp morning glass of GM juice.

Read the full article at the New York Times.

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