Assisted Evolution Technologies (AET) to improve the quality of citrus fruits

Ten years after the publication that reported the invention of the CRISPR/Cas “molecular scissors”, CREA (Research Center for Olive Growing, Frutticulture, Citrus Growing of Acireale) publishes its first article in an international journal (Salonia et al., 2022) using Assisted Evolution Technologies to improve the quality of citrus fruits.

AETs keep the genetic heritage unaltered, modifying only the characters that make a variety imperfect and simulating what would happen in nature or through traditional genetic improvement. However, these would require years, huge resources and large spaces. On the other hand, AETs allow the same objectives to be achieved in less time and therefore to save money, even if a lot of work is still needed to identify the genes to modify and the perfect regeneration protocols, which are variety-dependent.

The published study used genome editing to “turn off” the beta-cyclase gene (responsible for converting lycopene to beta-carotene) so that lycopene (a metabolite that gives Star Rubi grapefruit and Navel Cara Cara, but also to the same compound present in tomatoes) can also be produced and accumulated in varieties of oranges with anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are known to be antioxidant and anticancer agents that help prevent and treat many diseases, so why not imagine even healthier fruits?

The CITRUS project funded by MIPAAF (2018-2023) as part of the BIOTECH project led by Concetta Licciardello, Senior Researcher of CREA in Acireale, has allowed the development of constructs and the regeneration of citrus varieties considered “recalcitrant”. She has also trained new generations of researchers who have already produced modified plants of various types of pigmented varieties, including blood and Tarot.

«We just have to wait for the plants to produce fruit and check in the pots and fields (hoping that the law changes) what we have evaluated in the laboratory. Technically, however, it is already possible to say that genome editing worked. AETs represent an innovative biotechnological approach in continuous evolution which aims to protect and promote Italian varieties while improving the aspects required by the market, consumers and climate change.”

“Prior to this study, AETs were applied to citrus fruits to add resistance to bacterial cancer in susceptible species such as ‘Duncan’ grapefruit and ‘Valencia’ oranges. Italy was the first to apply ‘molecular scissors’ to improve the quality of citrus fruits.The knowledge acquired places researchers in an advantageous situation, as they can now exploit their skills to obtain plants resistant to harmful organisms, thus contributing to solving current and future phytosanitary emergencies.In fact, we recall that Huanglongbing and bacterial cancer are at risk at the gates of the Mediterranean and currently there are no cures or sources of resistance among the cultivated varieties”.

Concetta Licciardello, PhD
Council for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Economics Analysis
Research Center Olive Growing Fruit Growing Citrus Growing
Corso Savoia 190, 95024
Acireale (Catania) Italy
+39 095-7653104
+39 3493628053
skype cetti.licciardello