With the popularity of fresh, fast-casual Mexican chains eclipsing that of fast-food burger bars, the question “Do you want guac on the side?” has become the new “Do you want fries with that?”

Like a side of french fries, a scoop of guacamole is the quintessential treat-yourself upgrade. For an extra $2, give or take, it’s a simple indulgence—the kind you splurge on just because it’s a Tuesday or because you just got a tax refund. A burrito bursting with carnitas, beans, and rice is nice—but a burrito blanketed in zesty guacamole approaches something, well, holy.

America’s obsession with the avocado doesn’t end there. There’s also that star of brunch menus and social media feeds, avocado toast—slices of artisan bread studded with perfect slivers of avocado that beg first to be Instagrammed, then to be eaten.

But not everything about the avocado is so picture-perfect. A devastating fungal disease is spreading throughout Florida’s avocado trees, crippling entire groves. If it’s not stopped, avocados in Florida—America’s second-largest producer after California—could be toast.

The fungal infection, known as laurel wilt disease, is spread by the redbay ambrosia beetle, an invasive species from Asia. True to the disease’s name, the trees it infects display wilted foliage and withering branches before they waste away completely. To date, laurel wilt disease has destroyed more than 40,000 commercial avocado trees in Florida.

 

To revive the avocado industry and thwart future outbreaks of the disease, University of Florida researchers are working to breed avocado trees resistant to laurel wilt.

Alan Chambers, a University of Florida scientist with a research focus in tropical fruits, said gene editing could be a vital tool for preventing future outbreaks in avocado.

Gene editing methods allow researchers to knock out precise plant genes, like the ones in avocados that cause susceptibility to laurel wilt. Using gene editing, scientists can develop experimental varieties and discover solutions to plant diseases much more quickly than with older plant breeding methods.

“With some of these tropical fruit species, you’re looking at generation times of five, 10, or 15 years using traditional breeding,” Chambers said. “Using CRISPR gene editing would cut that time down significantly since we’d be able to take a plant we already really like and just target the genes we need to make it disease resistant.”

Efforts are now underway to prevent the spread of laurel wilt to California, which produces 90 percent of American avocados. However, if scientists can develop new, disease resistant trees using gene editing, those varieties could be a smart solution—a smash hit for growers and guacamole lovers alike.

Laurel wilt disease causes healthy avocado trees, like those pictured, to wither and turn brown. The disease, which has been present in Florida for several years, threatens to destroy many acres of commercial avocado trees in the state. (Photo by California Avocado)