UC Riverside received more than $4 million in federal funds to research methods of shielding avocados from a fungus that can be devastating to crops in California and elsewhere, it was announced Thursday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the university a $4.4 million grant as part of its National Institute of Food & Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative, with the goal of promoting development of next-generation methods of protecting orchards from Laurel Wilt, a fungus introduced by the non-native redbay ambrosia beetle.

“When the beetle attacks, the fungus enters and colonizes the tree’s vascular system, and within weeks, the tree wilts and dies if not managed properly,” said Patricia Manosalva, director of UCR’s Avocado Rootstock Breeding Program.

The fungus has been found in Florida, and growers believe it will eventually surface in California.

Along with Laurel Wilt, growers are also facing losses stemming from Phytophthora root rot, or PRR, and soil salinity, according to UCR. Salinity levels are a worldwide problem due to persistent droughts and use of reclaimed water for irrigation, officials said.

“Under this grant, we will select rootstocks harboring resistance to the current pathogen population, and we will register new fungicides with different modes of actions to reduce avocado losses to the destructive (PRR) pathogen,” Manosalva said.

UCR’s avocado breeding program was established 70 years ago, so the university is on the leading edge of developing strategies for crop protection, according to the researcher.

“This grant will allow us to keep moving the UCR rootstock breeding program forward and continue developing hearty avocado rootstocks,” she said.

The program has already isolated lines that can tolerate high salinity levels, and researchers believe the same rootstocks can be refined to bolster resistance to Laurel Wilt, using grafting techniques.

Field trials are pending in California and other states, as well as Puerto Rico, according to UCR.

The avocado industry generates more than $350 million in crop yields annually, according to the California Avocado Commission.

“California’s produce feeds the nation, and the world,” Monsalva said. “Our science will help feed people and empower growers everywhere.”

In a separate but related grant, the USDA awarded a team of 15 scientists from UCR and four other universities $1.9 million to study how essential oils may aid in combating algal stem blotch, brown rot, gray mold and powdery mildew that impact crops.

The grants have a four-year duration.

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