Dr. O’Neill at the 22nd World Orchid Conference Guayaquil, Ecuador
Vanilla planifolia, an orchid of Mesoamerican origin, is exceptional among the large family of orchid species in that it produces an aromatic and flavorful fruit, known as the “vanilla bean.” Vanilla beans have the highest value of any legal crop due to their sustainable mode of production and process. Recently though the price of one kilogram of cured vanilla beans soared to ~$600.00 reflecting serious challenges for the vanilla industry. A key issue is that of fruit quality: when the price of vanilla beans is quite high, their quality (aroma and flavor) is quite low. This raises the question of what determines fruit quality. From our scientific investigations, the developmental pathway from flower, to fertilization, to fruit determines fruit quality and involves complex biological processes of pollination and fertilization. The growth and development of a vanilla fruit requires a full 9 months. During this time, the coordinated development of new reproductive structures in the ovary largely determine fruit quality traits, including aroma. Our research has focused on vanilla flowers and fruit using genomics and bioinformatics to understand the molecular genetic basis of fruit quality. However, to interpret these data, it was essential to obtain detailed knowledge of reproduction in this species, beginning with flower pollination, and ending with fruit ripening. This research will be presented in the broader context of The Vanilla Sustainability Project, an international collaboration for crop improvement in Vanilla planifolia, germplasm conservation, sustainability, and for biodiversity conservation in Madagascar, the center of world vanilla production.
An overview will be provided of the history of vanilla cultivation beginning in Mexico, the patrimonial birthplace of vanilla, and extending to Europe and islands of the Southwest Indian Ocean including Madagascar, Réunion Island, and the Comoros Islands.
Dr. Sharman D. O’Neill is Professor of Biological Sciences, within the Department of Plant Biology, College of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Davis. She holds a Ph.D. degree in Plant Biology from Cornell University, a Masters of Arts degree in Biology from Smith College, and a Bachelor of Arts dual degree in Philosophy and English Literature from the University of Massachusetts. Dr. O’Neill and her laboratory conduct research in the area of the molecular biology, genetics, and genomics of reproduction in orchid flowers, with an emphasis on understanding meristem, ovule, ovary, fruit, seed and embryo development. Currently, Dr. O’Neill is investigating the molecular basis of flower and fruit development in Vanilla planifolia, with comparison to Phalaenopsis cultivars important to the ornamental horticulture industry.