Photo: UF/IFASDr. Alan Chambers, in the field, working on vanilla, is the lead researcher on this project.
UF Scientists Sequence Vanilla Genome, Could Support Domestic Industry
Some consumers crave vanilla. The U.S. leads the world in imported vanilla beans, said Alan Chambers, an assistant professor of tropical fruit breeding and genetics at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Madagascar grows about 80 percent of the world’s vanilla, but that island lies thousands of miles from the companies that buy vanilla beans and convert them to extract.
That’s why Chambers is leading a group of scientists trying to develop new Vanilla varieties to grow in Florida.
In new research published in the journal Scientific Reports, Chambers and Elias Bassil -- a UF/IFAS assistant professor of plant stress physiology -- led a group of researchers that established a Vanilla collection with 112 potentially unique individuals.
These individual plants create the basis from which a scientist can select the best plant for commercialization and genes needed to produce ideal Vanilla varieties through conventional breeding, Chambers said. With the new findings, researchers can see which types of Vanilla grow best in Florida and which might have useful genetics for plant breeding.
In their research, scientists also constructed a “draft genome” of Vanilla DNA, a basic version of all of the DNA in Vanilla.
The genome is all the DNA in an organism that contains the instructions for how it should do everything. For vanilla, this includes functions like how to make leaves or roots, how the plant responds to pathogens and how the plants make the aroma of the beans, said Chambers, a faculty member at the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, Florida.
Chambers described the findings and their implications in simple terms.
“If a genome was a car, a draft genome would be a basic vehicle with no frills -- no radio, no air conditioning, no power windows,” he said. “It does some things just fine, like getting you to work. The next step is to go from the basic vehicle to a luxury sports car.”
“So, while it’s only a draft genome, it’s a great resource for the scientific community,” he said.
Some surprises from this study included the identification of Vanilla hybrids between different species, Chambers said.
In the U.S. and Europe, you can only use two types of Vanilla beans -- Vanilla planifolia and Tahitian vanilla -- and call it “vanilla extract,” he said. This study identifies those individual plants that would clearly fall within these labeling requirements and allow a grower to access premium markets within the current regulatory framework.
Chambers envisions specialty market opportunities for South Florida farmers who want to grow Vanilla.
“Alternatively, the identified hybrids could represent a unique branding opportunity if a grower wants to produce something unique in all the world,” Chambers said. “These hybrids will most likely have distinct aromas and disease resistance. Now we can focus on a handful of promising Vanilla types to accelerate our objective to bring Vanilla cultivation in Florida one step closer to reality.”
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.