Citrus Research and Education Center, University of Florida, 700 Experiment Station Road, Lake Alfred 33850.
Citrus greening (Huanglongbing [HLB]) is one of the most destructive diseases of citrus worldwide. The causal agent of HLB in Florida is thought to be ‘Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus’. Understanding of the early events in HLB infection is critical for the development of effective measures to control the disease. In this work, we conducted cytopathological studies by following the development of the disease in citrus trees graft inoculated with ‘Ca. L. asiaticus’-containing material under greenhouse conditions to examine the correlation between ultrastructural changes and symptom production, with the main objective of characterizing the early events of infection. Based on our observations, one of the first degenerative changes induced upon invasion of the pathogen appears to be swelling of middle lamella between cell walls surrounding sieve elements. This anatomical aberration was often observed in samples from newly growing flushes in inoculated sweet orange and grapefruit trees at the early “presymptomatic” stage of HLB infection. Development of symptoms and their progression correlated with an increasing degree of microscopic aberrations. Remarkably, the ability to observe the bacterium in the infected tissue also correlated with the degree of the disease progression. Large numbers of bacterial cells were found in phloem sieve tubes in tissue samples from presymptomatic young flushes. In contrast, we did not observe the bacteria in highly symptomatic leaf samples, suggesting a possibility that, at more advanced stages of the disease, a major proportion of ‘Ca. L. asiaticus’ is present in a nonviable state. We trust that observations reported here advance our understanding of how ‘Ca. L. asiaticus’ causes disease. Furthermore, they may be an important aid in answering a question: when and where within an infected tree the tissue serves as a better inoculum source for acquisition and transmission of the bacterium by its psyllid vector.