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Vanilla 2009, the fifth biannual conference, was held recently in Jamesburg, New Jersey. The conference was themed “Vanilla Diseases” in response to recent reports of widespread Fusarium among vanilla vines in Madagascar—a region that has historically produced about 70% of the world supply of vanilla beans. The event addressed both the causes of and possible solutions to vanilla disease, including physical remedies, biological controls and genome enabled technologies.
Read Day 1 presentations here.
Richard Exeley of Australian Vanilla Bean opened day two of the conference with an overview of vanilla production in Australia. Australia has long been a relatively large consumer of vanilla extract, but its entry into vanilla bean production is a recent development. Exeley explained that while this initiative is still in its infancy, with just 200 kg of total production expected this year, it does include some interesting variations on the normal vanilla model. The vanilla production in Australia is completely vertically integrated, Exeley explained, with farmers growing, curing, packing, branding and selling vanilla directly to chefs and gourmet delicatessens. In the future, he foresees the introduction of branded, single-estate extracts targeted at upscale consumers.
The next speaker of the day was Paul Bayman from the University of Puerto Rico, who discussed “Mycorrhizal relationships of wild vanilla plants and their implications for vanilla cultivation.” Referring to mycorrhizae as symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi and a common concept in nature, Bayman cited examples of orchids that typically need the fungi to assist in seed germination, and mycorrhizal fungi that have been effective in preventing plant disease (including Fusarium) in tomato and tobacco plants. Sadly, though, despite the commercial importance of vanilla, very little was known about the crop’s interaction with mycorrhizal fungi prior to Bayman’s research. The research included isolation of different fungi from the roots of wild vanilla vines collected from Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Cuba, and their identification by DNA sequencing. The germination studies found that some fungi were significantly better than others in assisting seed germination and promoting growth.
In this backdrop, Bayman suggested that similar field studies could be conducted in other vanilla growing countries with an objective to isolate and identify both beneficial and harmful fungi growing among the roots of vanilla vines. He also suggested using computer modeling to cope with the complexity of the subject and perhaps predict the efficacy of specific genera of mycorrhizal fungi in disease control. However, Bayman acknowledged that there is much still to be learned, as the study of mycorrhizal fungi is extremely complex and difficult to predict, and that its relationship with plants is not fixed and often difficult to identify. That said, Bayman’s work is a likely promising area for future research.
Next, Sharman O’Neill, professor of biological sciences at the University of California, Davis, introduced an international initiative to utilize genomic resources for crop improvement and sustainability of vanilla. This initiative seeks to utilize Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) on various species of vanilla to survey the genetic diversity of the crop for specific traits and genes (such as disease resistance, self pollination and improved flavor quality) that could have commercial significance. The project has partnered with CIRAD (See Day 1) from Reunion Island—which has an extensive collection of vanilla species and knowledge of the specific characteristics of each—and hopes to utilize that organization’s resources to conduct field studies of improved cultivars with growers in Madagascar.
O’Neill explained that this project has tremendous potential benefits and has the ultimate objective of ensuring the sustainability of the vanilla industry and the impoverished farmers who depend on it, often as their primary source of income. However, she noted that this project would require significant funding, which she hopes to obtain from nonprofit organizations such as the Gates Foundation and The Venter Institute and individual corporations or industry organizations that are associated with the vanilla industry and would ultimately benefit from this research.