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Martin Zapien in the UF/IFAS Millennium Block

UF graduate student strives to help crops thrive against disease

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — A graduate student whose lifetime career goal is to see high-value crops thrive by their natural defense mechanisms was recognized by the American Society for Horticultural Science.

To pursue graduate studies, Martin Zapien left a position as an applied research associate for blueberries with Driscoll’s in Mexico, one of the Western Hemisphere’s most prominent berry producers. Zapien is earning a master’s degree at the University of Florida’s Indian River Research and Education Center (IRREC) in Fort Pierce, Florida. The center is part of UF’s statewide Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and serves the Indian River District, a coastal area in central Florida known to be the world’s premier grapefruit production region.

In early August, the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) presented Zapien with a 3rd Place Award following his presentation in a competition event, “Scholars Ignite,” at the annual conference in Denver, Colorado. Vying for the prestigious awards were 35 graduate students from around the world. In addition to the place award, the ASHS gave to Zapien a travel grant to attend the meeting.

“Martin Zapien’s passion is for fresh fruit production and crop tolerance for disease,” said Lorenzo Rossi, who supervises Zapien’s studies. Until recently, Rhuanito Ferrarezi oversaw Zapien’s thesis. This month, Ferrarezi departed UF for a position with the University of Georgia. “Martin’s thesis research involves a 20-acre citrus grove where 50 grapefruit scions on three rootstocks and more than 20 rootstocks combined with grapefruit, mandarin, and navel orange scions are under observation for their ability to tolerate the most serious citrus disease worldwide,” Rossi said.

Huanglongbing (HLB) is a citrus disease vectored by an invasive insect called the Asian citrus psyllid. The disease and the psyllid have advanced to an endemic status on every continent where citrus is produced.

Rossi is an assistant professor of plant root biology at IRREC. Rossi’s role as a scientist and mentor to high-performance graduate students is to study and enhance crop root structures and their interaction with soils and nutrients. Rossi believes healthier root architecture will promote crop health and advance food production worldwide.

“Martin scored high in his presentation for impact and slide content in his PowerPoint presentation,” Rossi said. “Martin’s thorough oversight for the research project and a deep attention to data collection and multiple level reports are remarkable.”

In the formal ASHS presentation, Zapien gave exceeding detail with data collection and early experimental observations. Zapien’s early scientific hypotheses demonstrate a resonate commitment to resolve the crop disease issue. The experiment, the largest and most comprehensive attempt to manage citrus varieties to produce fruit under disease conditions in the renowned Indian River District, will bring forth a valuable harvest of research data in the next five years, said Rossi.

Today, the data are only three years old, and the trees in the experimental grove are just beginning to bear fruit. But the performance data for each cultivar are valuable to the entire body of research to continue production, despite the HLB disease, said Zapien.

Current data shows differentiation in vigor and tree size, according to the different rootstocks. Larger trees exhibit the most mottling or yellowing caused by the decline of chlorophyll of citrus leaves in at least 20% of tree canopies or classic signs for HLB.

“Knowing these details is crucial for growers to make grower decisions when they select rootstock and cultivars during HLB times,” said Zapien. “It is our goal to provide reliable data about the most economically and biologically suitable materials that can sustain a healthy Florida citrus industry in which we can all believe.”

4 Comments on “UF graduate student strives to help crops thrive against disease

  1. So grateful to meet people like you, my dear collegue. I’m pretty sure that you’ll achieve all your goals. I send you a hug from Valle de Bravo, MX.

    • Thanks for your kind words, colega. I am also rooting for you here!! Tons of love from this beautiful strip of land 🙂