Do sprayed antibiotics move inside citrus plants?

There has been discussion lately about how effective are antibiotics in citrus groves. In order for these to take down Las, the bacterium that causes greening, they need to be moved in the vascular system, particularly the phloem, where Las hangs out.  So, are leaf-sprayed antibiotics moved systemically?

This is the question some colleagues and I asked in a recent paper.  We were following up on some of Nian Wang’s research that showed how trunk-injected oxy-tetracycline (which we’ll affectionately call “oxytet”) moved around the citrus plant, eventually reaching all parts.  We had a few questions:

  1. When oxytetracycline is sprayed on the leaves, does it move to other parts of the plant? This question addressed whether there is systemic movement at all.
  2. How much moves? If there is systemic movement, what proportion of what is sprayed is moved.
  3. Does it matter whether you spray on old or young leaves? Some growers try to spray when there is new flush?  New flush has thinner cuticle (the waxy layer on the outside of the leaf). We thought that applying to new flush would allow more oxytet to get into the leaf.

In the same study we looked at some of the effects of heat treatment, but today we’ll just look at oxytet delivery. These trees did not have HLB, this is because we wanted to look at oxytet movement, not efficacy against Las.

What did we find?

  1. Oxytetracycline did move into leaves that did not receive the spray.
  2. How much moved? In one trial we found between 0.36-0.63 of the concentration in the leaves that didn’t receive the application relative to the leaves that were sprayed. But in the next trial we found between 0.27 and 0.34. So, although we did find oxytet moved into leaves that weren’t sprayed, a portion of what was sprayed stayed in the original leaf. The portion that didn’t become systemic probably is useless against Las because it isn’t moving through the vascular system.
  3. It doesn’t matter whether you spray old or young leaves. We found the same concentrations in the leaves regardless of which leaves were sprayed. At first we thought this contradicted some previous work that showed that there was a decrease in delivery of nitrogen as leaves aged. However, taking a closer look at that older work, it turns out that delivery decreases from when leaves emerge until about 6 weeks. However, after this point delivery begins to increase again. This is because, although there is more wax on the outside of the leaf, this wax ages and forms cracks, which probably allow more of whatever is sprayed in.

How did we find this?

Some plants we removed all new flush, some we removed all old flush, and some we left all the leaves. We covered about 1/4 of the canopy of small trees with impermeable plastic. Then we sprayed the rest of the canopy. After the spray had dried, we removed the plastic. About 3 weeks later we sampled both the leaves that were directly sprayed and those that weren’t. Then we tested each for oxytetracycline content.

Is it enough?

We still don’t know whether the concentrations that made it do the unsprayed leaves were enough to reduce the Las levels, because we actually don’t know how much oxytet it takes to bring Las down in the plant. This study didn’t address streptomycin, the other antibiotic that is labeled to use against Las, so we don’t know whether it would move similarly.

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