April 25, 2016, DAVIS, CA—At the 2016 World Agri-Tech Investment Summit, held from March 16-17 in San Francisco, UC Davis professor Cristina Davis won the pitch fest competition’s “Best Newcomer” Award.
Davis, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, was invited to talk about XTB Laboratories, Inc, a company she co-founded in 2016. Davis says the company has developed a new way to test citrus trees for a disease called Huanglongbing (HLB) disease, or citrus greening. The disease causes the tree to die and the fruit to become bitter and misshapen. Davis said the disease is asymptomatic for the first year, and therefore can spread rampantly.
If the disease is left untreated, says Davis, it could have a devastating impact on the nation’s multi-billion-dollar citrus-producing economy. According to the Citrus Research Board, California alone produces approximately 80 percent of the country’s fresh fruit citrus. Other major citrus-producing states include Florida, Arizona and Texas.
Currently, she says, there is only one tool to diagnose the disease that relies on detecting the pathogen in the tree’s leaves. But this diagnostic model is inconsistent because the pathogens are not distributed evenly throughout the tree.
“We need a better test that is more accurate and specific,” she said, “my group is actually working on a way to detect metabolites that emit from trees as gases.”
Davis says her test is similar to what the human nose can detect when smelling the aromas from flowering trees. The test detects a bunch of chemicals representing chemical processes in the tree.
“When trees are sick, that aroma shifts and changes a little bit,” she said. “If you can grab a sample of the air from that tree, you can analyze it and see if it’s infected.”
Davis’ research has been funded by the California and Florida citrus-producing industries. Through extensive testing, the science is now highly developed and ready to be used in the agricultural industry.
At the World Agri-Tech Investment Summit, Davis had the opportunity to pitch her startup company and citrus tree diagnostic test to attract capitalists interested in commercializing research. She competed against several other companies.