New research suggests that a bacterium, thought to be the cause of a deadly disease of citrus plants, aids its own spread by altering insect behavior. Asian psyllids - the insects behind the spread of citrus greening - were shown to fly further and more frequently after feeding on infected plants.
This increased mobility is thought to enhance the chances of the insect passing the bacterium on. Citrus greening or huanglongbing as it is also known has a dramatic effect on the appearance and health of citrus plants.
The University of Florida's Dr Kirsten Stelinski, who has been studying the disease, highlighted some of the consequences of the infection during a recent interview with the BBC's Science in Action.
"The leaves start to yellow and grow mottled in appearance, the branches begin to die back, the root system dies back and ultimately the tree declines and dies," she said.
The disease is thought to be caused by a group of related bacteria and the current study focused on one of the strains implicated: Candidatius Liberibacter asiaticus or CLas for short. The bacterium replicates inside the citrus plants; in the sap that transports nutrients around the plant. To get from plant to plant the bacterium has to rely on an insect carrier called the Asian psyllid.
As the name suggests, the psyllid is native to Asia but is thought to have been spread to other parts of the world on shipments of citrus plants - an unforeseen consequence of global trade. The insect feeds on the citrus plant by inserting a special tube, a proboscis, deep into a leaf and then sucking up some of the nutrient-rich sap. If it feasts on an infected plant, it too can become infected with the CLas bacterium. When it moves to an uninfected plant to feed, the contagion can spread.
The chemical is produced when groups of psyllids feed and the bacteria make the plants produce more of the chemical making it irresistible to the ravenous psyllid, but this attraction is short-lived. While infected psyllids are not thought to live as long, the evidence suggests that they have more offspring. And larger populations benefit the bacteria by providing more dispersal options.
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