ST. PETERSBURG (CBSMiami/AP) – Captain Citrus might be the new hero mascot of Florida oranges, but it’s a group of university researchers devising a plan to save the groves from a deadly disease.

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The researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences said Thursday they tented and enveloped trees in 136-degree steam for about 30 seconds in an attempt to kill the citrus greening plant.

Citrus greening is a bacteria that attacks the root of tree and starves it of nutrients, which eventually kills the plant.

Florida’s citrus growers have been the hardest-hit in the U.S. and researchers are working furiously to come up with a vaccine or cure.

Researcher Reza Ehsani said the steam treatment is not a cure for greening because it cannot reach the trees’ root system.

The steam heat kills the bacteria, and while it doesn’t cure the tree entirely from the disease, it does extend the tree’s lifespan, allowing a grower to harvest more fruit.

The treatment also might ultimately attract more bacteria-carrying psyllids. Ehsani said trees treated with steam usually drop their old leaves and “a significant number of new shoots develop on the tree.”

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Those new shoots then attract the psyllid, the bug that carries the bacteria – and then the chances of reinfection are high.

Ehsani will present his findings Friday at the International Citrus Beverage Conference in Clearwater.

On Wednesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that a federal Tree Assistance Program is now being extended to Florida growers affected by citrus greening.

The citrus industry contributes $9 billion per year to the state’s economy and supports about 76,000 jobs.

Most of Florida’s oranges are used for juice, unlike California oranges which are destined for the fresh fruit market.

According to the USDA, the U.S. citrus crop was worth $3.15 billion in the 2012-2013 growing season, down 15 percent from the previous season. The value of the Florida citrus crop was $1.53 billion in the 2012-2013 growing season, and the state comprised 63 percent of all U.S. citrus production.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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