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ECE researchers begin project to treat and prevent apple disease

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By Susan Kantor, ECE ILLINOIS
March 11, 2010

  • ECE Professor Kyekyoon "Kevin" Kim and ECE Instructor/MNTL Research Professor Hyungsoo "Sue" Choi are co-principal investigators on a project from the USDA-Specialty Crop Research Initiative program to treat and eradicate fire blight.
  • Fire blight is a devastating disease in the apple and pear industry and causes an annual loss of $200 million in the U.S.
  • Kim and Choi will develop controlled delivery of biocontrol agents that are most effective in dealing with the bacterial disease using nano/microtechnology.

In the summer of 1880, Thomas J. Burrill, a professor and researcher at Illinois, demonstrated that “pear blight” was a bacterial disease of plants. He was the first to show that plants also suffer from bacterial diseases. Burrill Hall on the Illinois campus was named in his honor.

Reflecting its land grant heritage, Illinois continues to be home to important research into plant diseases. Only now, cutting-edge technology is taking a more dominant role.

ECE Professor Kyekyoon Kim and ECE Instructor/MNTL Research Professor Hyungsoo Choi are co-principal investigators on a three-year $1.95 million project from the USDA-Specialty Crop Research Initiative program to treat and eradicate fire blight.

A research group that has received a long-term grant to study the fire blight disease that affects apples and pears is pictured in an orchard. Front row (from left): Hyungsoo
A research group that has received a long-term grant to study the fire blight disease that affects apples and pears is pictured in an orchard. Front row (from left): Hyungsoo "Sue" Choi, Youfu "Frank" Zhao. Back row (from left): Lia Nogueira, Schuyler Korban, and Kyekyoon "Kevin" Kim. Photo by David Riecks, ACES-ITCS.

Fire blight is a devastating disease in the apple and pear industry, plaguing trees throughout the world. In the United States, the disease causes an annual loss of $200 million. This project will include researchers from departments across the University of Illinois campus, as well as from across the country.

This project is significant: the value of U.S. apple production is estimated at $1.75 billion. “As you can imagine, this is a huge industry,” Kim said. “When we have completed this project, we will be benefiting a lot of people and also, economically, this country.”

Kim and Choi will develop controlled delivery of biocontrol agents (i.e., bacterial antagonists) and chemical agents that are most effective in dealing with the bacterial disease using nano/microtechnology. The chemical and biocontrol agents are being developed by other co-principal investigators.

To fabricate the precision micro/nanoparticles needed for this project, Kim and Choi will employ the Advanced Particle Fabrication (APF) technology that they have developed. Controlled experiments will be carried out in the lab before being brought into the orchards.

The micro/nanosphere particles can be a fraction of the size of a hair. They consist of a shell and core material. Chemicals contained inside the spheres can be released under specific, controlled conditions. The timing of the release depends on the size of the microsphere and the properties of the shell. For microbial agents, they should remain viable inside the capsules until released and proliferate afterwards.

“Whenever we encapsulate these therapeutics, we can control, as well as tailor the release profiles such that it would be most effective,” Kim said. “In this case, in preventing and treating fire blight.”

“Our approach is unique,” Kim said. “Since we’ve already done much work related to this and have shown how effective our methodology is, we know that we can make a very concrete contribution.”

Schuyler Korban, professor of Molecular Genetics and Biotechnology, is the principal investigator on the project. Other co-principal investigators on the project from Illinois are Youfu “Frank” Zhao, assistant professor of Plant Pathology and Lia Nogueira, assistant professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics. Larry Pusey from USDA-ARS in Washington and George Sundin from Michigan State University are also co-principal investigators.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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