Researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have partnered with Elo Life Systems to find a new way to grow vanilla more sustainably without compromising taste.
The research aims to read genomes in vanilla species to help researchers at IFAS breed plant species more easily, said Alan Chambers, plant geneticist at UF’s IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center.
Chambers said the ability to read genomes makes plant-breeding easier because it enables researchers to track plant DNA faster. Plant breeders would then be able to mix and match those DNA sequences, and researchers would in turn be able to improve targeted plant traits like taste or disease resistance.
Plant breeding differs from GMOs because GMOs require foreign DNA to be injected into plant species, he said. Plant breeding, however, is a natural way of controlling how plants grow.
“The genome sequences have been posted to public data repositories,” he said. This allows people to try breeding vanilla on their own.
Further, UF researchers are actively helping domestic vanilla growers by teaching them how to grow vanilla, he said. The genome will help researchers provide better plant species to those same growers.
There are four vanilla species native to Florida, but none is for food use.
“The commercial species used for food is primarily grown in Madagascar today,” he said.
Vanilla likely hasn’t advanced in terms of plant breeding as much as other plants because it is grown in countries where research is underfunded, hypothesized Tengfang Huang, the director of translational agriculture at Elo Life Systems.
“The fact that vanilla species haven’t been improved in the past 100 years is shocking,” Huang said.
He said there are a lot of problems with the supply chain, providing a lot of opportunities to address those problems.
“The only bottleneck is that we don’t have a genome,” he said.
Because research on vanilla is limited, he said the biggest challenge of the research was starting from scratch. The research will eventually pay off by improving breeding for vanilla as well as other plants.
“If we can work on vanilla, we can definitely work on many other species,” he said.