UI researchers receive grant to fight destructive apple tree disease

Fire blight is a severe bacterial disease found in the state of Illinois.

Infected victims can manifest oozing black lesions on their skin, as well as appear to be severely charred by fire. The disease is highly contagious, and there is no effective means to stop it.

Luckily, fire blight only infects apple and pear trees.

If University professor Schuyler S. Korban can help it, fire blight will one day be a thing of the past. With the help from of a $1.95 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture awarded this month, Korban seeks to stop fire blight from attacking North American agriculture.

He said fire blight is the No. 1 disease for apples trees, pear trees and other ornamental crops.

In central Illinois, conditions are so ideal for fire blight to develop that it is impossible to grow pear trees in the state.

In apple trees, which are less sensitive to the disease, fire blight ranges in severity.

The disease can kill infected trees when it is at its most severe.

“We want to explain to the public what biological controls is all about, and of course to use the opportunity to educate them about what genomics and genetic engineering is all about,” Korban said.

Long term goals for the project include the development of fire blight resistant trees.

“This disease is everywhere. There’s not a button where if you push it you won’t have to deal with fire blight. You have to,” said Youfu Zhao, assistant professor and member of the research team.

Chris Curtis, office manager at the Curtis Apple Orchard in Champaign, said he knows all too well about fire blight.

Whenever fire blight infections are spotted, they are immediately cut off infected branches.

“Being an airbourne disease, it can spread rapidly throughout an orchard. We try to nip it in the bud when we see it,” Curtis said.

While Curtis said that this year has not been so severe, fire blight can put a strain on the orchard’s workers during the early summer months as they prepare to open the orchard to the public in July.

“One year we had a major outbreak. It took a long time to go through the orchard and get rid of this stuff, whereas we could have spent the time and labor doing other things,” Curtis said. “It’s just one more thing we have to take care of in a place that’s very busy already.”

Curtis said he would be happy if fire blight resistant trees were ever developed.

“We would not only benefit from it, but also other orchards around the state,” Curtis said. “We would definitely be in for it.”