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Researcher fights for citrus

Biologist opens a company that makes fertilizer to fight field pests based on 16 years of research on the Xylella fastidiosa

096_Carreiras_Perfil_247_altaPersonal archiveIn late 1997, biologist Simone Picchi decided to visit one of the laboratories of the Center for Agricultural Biology at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture of the University of São Paulo (ESALQ-USP) in the city of Piracicaba. Then, in the last year of her biology studies at São Paulo State University (Unesp) in Bauru, she was fascinated by tissue-growing and molecular biology techniques that were developed there. Before leaving, she submitted an application for an engineering-agronomy internship to Helaine Carrer, who at the time was in charge of the laboratory that shortly afterward became part of the Organization for Nucleotide Sequencing and Analysis (ONSA), established by FAPESP to sequence the genome of the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium that attacks oranges, causing citrus variegated chlorosis (CVC), citrus greening.

Picchi got the internship and became increasingly involved in Xylella studies. From 1999 to 2006 she earned her master’s and PhD in genetic agronomy and plant improvement at the School of Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences at Unesp in Jaboticabal. In 2009 she traveled to the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine where she worked as a postdoctoral researcher on bacteriophages, a type of virus that attacks bacteria. The research was performed under a partnership between the university and Geneweave Biosciences. “That was when I began to have a more business-like vision of my own research,” she says.

She returned to Brazil in 2010 and began a new postdoctoral fellowship at the Sylvio Moreira Citrus Research Center of the Agronomic Institute of Campinas (IAC) in the area of bacterial biofilm under the supervision of biologist Alessandra Alves de Souza, who was studying a molecule known as N-acetylcysteine (NAC) as a possible sustainable alternative for controlling the pest. NAC is a compound used to reduce nasal secretion and clear respiratory paths, and it has no adverse impact on the environment (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 214). “After infecting the plant, the Xylella forms a biofilm that adheres to the community of invading microorganisms,” she explains. “We think that breaking this biofilm with NAC when it is just starting to form may be one way to fight the disease.”

The experiments produced good results and Picchi decided to expand the use of NAC to fight the Xanthomonas citri subsp. citri bacterium as well, which causes citrus canker. In addition to continuing her research in the area of genetics and microorganisms at IAC, Picchi opened CiaCamp, a company that conducts research and develops NAC-based fertilizer for use in growing citrus fruit as a sustainable alternative in managing phytopathogenic diseases. The company recently obtained FAPESP funding through the Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (PIPE). “The goal is to bring the knowledge generated by research to producers,” she says.