USDA cryopreservation

USDACryopreservation in action.

Cryonics may never bring slugger Ted Williams back to life, but federal scientists hope that freezing the tips of tree roots could help save America’s $3.4 billion citrus-growing industry.

Unlike the famous baseball player, who was frozen after he died in 2002 (with his head and body stored in separate containers), the plant tissue that U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists are preserving in subzero temperatures is very much alive.

Citrus trees are increasingly under threat from citrus greening, aka Huanglongbing or “Yellow Dragon Disease,” a bacterial disease spread by insects. It has killed millions of citrus trees in the U.S. since it was first detected in Florida in 2005.

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From a USDA press release:

[S]cientists are creating a backup storage site or “genebank” for citrus germplasm in the form of small buds, called shoot tips, which have been cryopreserved—that is, plunged into liquid nitrogen for long-term cold storage. …

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Some genebanks maintain living citrus trees in dedicated groves and screenhouses. But in cryopreservation, [plant physiologist Gayle] Volk saw a way to safeguard valuable germplasm without fear of losing it to insect or disease outbreaks, as well as natural disasters such as freezes, droughts and hurricanes. Instead of safeguarding whole plants or trees, her approach involves cutting tiny shoot tips from new growth, called “flush,” and cryopreserving the material for storage inside state-of the-art vaults at the ARS National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) in Fort Collins, Colo.

The center is something of a “Fort Knox” for plant and animal germplasm. In addition to the value of its collections, which are crucial to conducting research and ensuring the food security of future generations, the NCGRP’s storage vaults can withstand tornado-strength winds, floods, and the impact from a 2,500-pound object traveling at 125 miles an hour.

If citrus greening does turn the nation’s citrus crop to pulp, here’s hoping that Volk’s sci-fi-worthy research can help to reconstitute it.