Traditionally the vanilla orchid is bred (propagated) by hand, using stem cuttings. However this method is both time and labour intensive, and can reduce the economy of production as taking cuttings of a mother plant reduces the future yield of the plant.
By culturing a high quality parent plant the researchers based at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus believe that may be able to produce a viable and simple method for the large scale commercial production of vanilla plants.
Funding for the two year project will now help the scientists to investigate the possible occurrence of genetic variants of vanilla and may provide guidance on the suitability of tissue culture protocols for the long term use of vanilla plant cloning without the risk of genetic instability.
Dr Chin Chiew Foan, who is set to lead the research, told FoodNavigator that the project “aims to provide high quality clonal (cloned) plant materials for vanilla production,” which will help to increase the yield of natural vanilla production by supplying the vanilla farmers with high quality genetically cloned plant materials.
The unique flavour of vanilla comes from vanillin, a compound that comes from the vanilla bean, the ‘fruit’ of the flowering vanilla orchid.
According to the researchers, vanilla is the world’s second-most loved flavour (behind chocolate), and is the second most expensive spice (after saffron).
Demand for vanilla flavours is increasing all the time, but the highly labour intensive cultivation methods and the plant’s temperamental life cycle and propagation mean production on a global scale is struggling to keep up with the increasing demand for the product.
However the researchers believe that the future use of vanilla by the global food industry could be more secure.
The researchers said that the main problem with the current cloning technique is that occurrence of ‘sub-clones’ of one parental line. They explained that this creates ‘off-types’, which are not of the same quality as the parent plant; meaning that it can be costly method of production if a high percentage of the clones are ‘off-types’ that have to be scrapped.
Now the scientists have been awarded a Fundamental Research grant (FRGS) from the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education to use DNA marker systems to investigate how these ‘off-type’ mutations occur.
Similar marker systems have been widely used to detect the genetic similarities and differences in other cloned crops, and are simple, quick and cost-effective for routine application.
“Currently, we are developing a tool that will explore the internal RNA sequence region to detect sequence variations,” explained Dr Chiew Foan.
She told FoodNavigator that being able to make the cloned propagation method work properly in tissue culture can be challenging:
“Very often undesirable variability will occur. The tool that we are developing has been used in other plant species before, we are modifying it to adapt for detection of any genetic variability that might occur in clonal vanilla plant materials,” said Chiew Foan.