Fresh Vanilla From Florida a Step Closer to Reality

Alan Chambers studies vanilla in Florida

Vanilla could be the next alternative crop of choice for Florida growers. UF/IFAS Assistant Professor Alan Chambers is among a team of local researchers seeking to vet that possibility. Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS

Plain and simple, American consumers have a taste for vanilla. In fact, the U.S. leads the world in imported vanilla beans. But what if farmers could grow vanilla here? University of Florida scientists are busy investigating the possibility and reportedly have sequenced the vanilla genome. The breakthrough could help researchers select the best types for breeding new varieties of the plant to grow in the Sunshine State.

UF/IFAS scientists Alan Chambers and Elias Bassil led a team of researchers that established a vanilla collection featuring more than 100 potentially unique individuals. Details of the project were recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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In addition, the scientists also constructed a “draft genome” of vanilla DNA. This includes functions such as how to make leaves or roots, how the plant responds to pathogens, and how the plants make the aroma of the beans, Chambers explained. “If a genome was a car, a draft genome would be a basic vehicle with no frills,” Chambers stated in a news release. “The next step is to go from the basic vehicle to a luxury sports car.”

Roughly 80% of the world’s vanilla is grown in Madagascar, but location of the island nation presents logistical challenges for companies that buy vanilla beans and convert them to extract. These factors, plus poor crop stands, have caused prices to soar in recent times.

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The study also yielded a few new insights regarding identification of vanilla hybrids between different species. 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,” according to Chambers. “The identified hybrids could represent a unique branding opportunity if a grower wants to produce something unique in all the world,” he said. “These hybrids will most likely have distinct aromas and disease resistance.”