Combatting Citrus Greening Disease through therapeutic peptides

Citrus Greening Disease is difficult to combat with normal medicines. To address this, Dr. San Fernando is using a software platform to create therapeutic peptides that can stop the disease-causing bacteria in Citrus Greening Disease from growing.  View Halo Profile >>

About Sandun (San) Fernando

Dr. Sandun (San) Fernando is an Associate Professor of Biology at Texas A&M University. Fernando is from Colombo, Sri-Lanka and completed his PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is involved with the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers and the American Chemical Society.

Tell us about your research.

I am a biomolecular engineer specializing in utilizing intermolecular interactions and phenomena to address agricultural and human health challenges. My work involves designing products and processes through large-scale computer models and simulations. These simulations help us understand how biomolecular systems behave, and we further validate their functionality through experiments. One area of focus in our laboratory is the development of molecules and tools to control and engineer biological processes at the molecular level. Using these tools, we have successfully designed molecules with unique properties, including peptides and aptamers that show high affinity toward pathogenic protein/enzyme targets. Additionally, we have developed molecules with highly-adaptive capability giving these molecules unique catalytic/surface properties. While these molecules hold promise for various applications including potential lead compounds for various plant, animal and human diseases, challenges emerge during testing and scaling up. Our research aims to address these challenges. By overcoming these obstacles, we strive to contribute to advancements in agriculture and healthcare.

The research on biomolecular/process design, represents a significant opportunity to make a meaningful impact to agriculture and human health.

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

We are working on designing peptides as therapeutics to combat agriculturally-relevant diseases that are challenging to control with conventional drugs. One such disease is Huangbinlong (HLB), also known as Citrus Greening Disease, which has caused significant devastation to the global citrus industry. The disease is caused by a bacterium called Candidatus liberibacter asiaticus (CLas), known for its resistance to many common antibiotics. Addressing CLas is particularly difficult because it can only grow in citrus plant phloem and cannot be cultured in the lab. To tackle this issue, we developed a software platform in our laboratory that allows us to design peptides using first principles. These peptides are designed to strongly bind and block BamA bacterial efflux pumps, as well as small molecules that target key enzymes essential for bacterial metabolism. While peptides show great potential in inhibiting bacteria through targeting BamA proteins, we recognize the need to optimize their target specificity, bioavailability, and ease of delivery. We conduct research to optimize the peptide-based therapeutic design and delivery methods while considering the ability to scale-up.

Why did you choose this area of research?

I selected the research mentioned above because it addresses crucial challenges in the field of agriculturally-relevant diseases and their treatment. As a biomolecular engineer, my focus lies in utilizing the power of intermolecular interactions and phenomena to develop innovative solutions for agricultural and human health problems. The research on biomolecular/process design, represents a significant opportunity to make a meaningful impact to agriculture and human health. Moreover, the platform that we have been developing allows us to explore the potential of designing peptides and maromolecules that can target the development of specific bacterial, fungal, and viral-resistant plant varieties. This aspect of the research holds significant promise for enhancing crop resilience and contributing to sustainable agriculture. Overall, my choice of this research stems from a strong drive to make a tangible difference in addressing critical challenges in agriculture and public health. I believe that by developing innovative solutions and advancing our understanding of intermolecular interactions, we can contribute to the development of effective and sustainable treatments for agriculturally-important diseases, benefitting both farmers and consumers worldwide.

My choice of this research stems from a strong drive to make a tangible difference in addressing critical challenges in agriculture and public health.

What are some of the real-world applications of your work?

The research on peptide design as therapeutics has several real-world applications with significant potential impact:

Controlling Citrus Greening Disease (HLB): The most direct and immediate application is to combat Citrus Greening Disease, which has been devastating the global citrus industry. By developing optimized peptides that can effectively target and inhibit the Candidatus liberibacter asiaticus (CLas) bacterium, the research can contribute to controlling the spread of the disease and preventing further damage to citrus crops.

Revolutionizing Antibiotic Alternatives: Given the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance, the development of novel alternatives to traditional antibiotics is critical. The research’s focus on peptide-based therapeutics offers a potential breakthrough in this area. Peptides have shown promise in circumventing antibiotic resistance mechanisms and could serve as valuable alternatives in treating agriculturally-relevant bacterial infections.

Advancing Plant Biotechnology: The ability to design peptides that target specific bacterial, fungal, and viral-resistant plant varieties has applications in plant biotechnology. By enhancing the resistance of crops to pathogens, this research can contribute to more robust and sustainable agriculture practices, ultimately leading to higher yields and food security.

Sustainable Crop Protection: Peptide-based therapeutics and novel molecules with anti-pathogenic properties present an environmentally-friendly approach to crop protection. Unlike chemical pesticides, which can have detrimental effects on the ecosystem, these peptide-based treatments may offer a more sustainable and eco-friendly option for managing agricultural diseases.

Biomedical Applications: The research’s focus on peptide design and understanding intermolecular interactions has broader applications beyond agriculture. The insights gained from this work can be adapted to develop peptide-based therapeutics for human health, targeting various infectious diseases and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Innovations in Drug Design and Delivery: The optimization of peptide-based therapeutics can lead to advancements in drug design and delivery methods. The work may offer new strategies for enhancing target specificity, improving bioavailability, and streamlining the synthesis and scale-up processes, not only for agricultural applications but also for pharmaceutical development.

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