Molecular Biologist Michelle Heck: Challenges of Citrus Greening Disease

If you grow citrus, you've no doubt heard of the invasive pest, Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina citri.

ACP they call it. A native of southern Asia, it was first detected it in the United States (Florida) in 1998.

ACP serves as a vector or carrier for the deadly citrus greening disease or Huanglongbing (HLB), a bacterial disease that infects and kills citrus trees.

"ACP arrived in Southern California in 2008 and has fully infested that region," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. "HLB disease was first detected in Los Angeles in 2012."

You may remember when the equivalent of a five-alarm fire went off when the citrus greening disease was found in California.  The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) sounded the alarm.

What's new in the research?

Research molecular biologist Michelle Heck of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) in Ithaca, N.Y., will discuss "Challenge-Driven Innovation in Citrus Greening Disease Research" when she presents a virtual seminar hosted by the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology at 4:10 p.m., Pacific Time, Wednesday, Feb. 16.

The seminar is open to all interested persons. The Zoom link is

Heck, who focuses her USDA-ARS research on the discovery and characterization of insect vector-plant-pathogen interactions, serves as a lead scientist and research molecular biologist with the Emerging Pests and Pathogens Research Unit, located in the Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture and Health, Ithaca.

The Asian citrus psyllid is a threat to America's citrus industry, according to a USDA Fact Sheet. "Burned tips and twisted leaves result from an infestation on new growth. Psyllids are also carriers of the bacterium that causes Huanglongbing (HLB) disease, also known as citrus greening disease, spreading the disease to healthy citrus plants. Citrus greening is one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure."

"Vector-borne diseases are among the most challenging problems in agriculture," says Heck, who plans and conducts sophisticated experiments using a variety of molecular, genetic and functional genomics methods to gain a deeper understanding of vector-borne plant pathogens. 

"Research planning involves novel, exceptionally difficult, team research that is subdivided into multiple phases with agency stakeholders," Heck says. Her research "integrates developed knowledge into applied agricultural practices to create novel management strategies for vector-borne plant diseases and the insect vectors." She conducts her studies in support of the USDA-ARS NP 304 Action Plan: Crop Protection and Quarantine, Problem Statement 3A2, a systems approach to environmentally sound pest management.

Heck, who holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Boston University,  received her doctorate from.Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring, N.Y. She completed her postdoctoral training in vector biology and mass spectrometry-based proteomics. Her research on protein interactions and protein transport in plants and insects spans more than 20 years, resulting in an international reputation as a vector biology authority skilled in the management of vector-borne plant diseases.  Heck is a lead in the USDA-ARS Citrus Greening Grand Challenge,  the agency's coordinated national response to combat citrus greening disease and the agency's scientific representative on the National Cotton Council's Cotton Leafroll Dwarf Virus Task Force.

Heck has published more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and several patents. Her peers have recognized her scientific excellence with a number of awards, including a 2017 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

For technical issues involving the seminar, contact Siddique at