Newly Sequenced Vanilla Genome Could Boost Tiny Global Supply

Tweaking the crop’s genes could help increase its yields and make it more resistant to disease and natural disasters

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Nearly 80 percent of the world's vanilla beans are produced by small farmers in Madagascar. The global supply is tiny compared with demand and is often threatened by extreme weather and disease. B.navez via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons 3.0

Vanilla is such a ubiquitous flavor that it’s easy to forget that it comes from the bean pods of an exotic-looking orchid. Those beans are laboriously dried and can fetch hundreds of dollars per pound.

Nearly 80 percent of the world’s supply of genuine vanilla, as opposed to synthetic attempts to recreate it, comes from small farms in Madagascar and, to a lesser extent, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Uganda. But researchers in Florida are trying to put their state on the map when it comes to vanilla production, reports Adriana Brasileiro for the Miami Herald.

South Florida has a tropical climate that University of Florida plant geneticist Alan Chambers says can support the fussy bean, but Chambers and his colleagues just published a paper in the journal Nature Food that could help take Florida vanilla to the next level. The research contains fully sequenced genomes for four of the most important varieties of vanilla, which could help plant breeders create more productive, less fussy varieties of the orchid.

“The vanilla genome reported in this study will enable accelerated breeding of vanilla pods with improved bean quality, plants with superior disease resilience and higher yields to support a new, domestic market,” says Chambers in a statement. “This work is the result of a public-private partnership that could revolutionize the multi-billion-dollar vanilla industry potentially producing vanilla pods with minimal reliance on manual labor.”

When Chambers says manual labor, he means it in the most literal sense: each vanilla plant must be pollinated by hand using a toothpick, according to the Herald. One of the traits researchers are keenest to explore is one that would eliminate a flap inside the vanilla flowers called the rostellum. Without that flap, the flowers could self-pollinate, potentially saving countless hours of labor—not to mention toothpicks.

The four fully-sequenced vanilla genomes—Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla tahitensis, Vanilla mexicana and Vanilla pompona—came from a collection of more than 300 varieties at the University of Florida. Vanilla planifolia is the species responsible for the vast majority of global commercial production, but the other varieties may hold useful genetic traits.

Speaking with Tamika Cody of local broadcast station Tampa Bay 10, Chambers explains that vanilla crops are vulnerable to being knocked out by storms as well as a fungus that causes root and stem rot. But Vanilla pompona can resist the fungus, and with scientists now in possession of its genetic blueprint, they may be able transfer that resistance to the commercially important Vanilla planifolia.

Chambers tells the Herald his biggest goal with the sequenced genomes is to boost the amount of vanillin, the compound we associate with vanilla’s flavor, that the plants produce.

“The quality of vanilla beans is primarily defined by the vanillin content. So if you can produce plants with higher vanillin concentrations, your beans will be worth more,” he tells the Herald.