Genomics and Plant Breeding to Advance Vanilla Production in Southern Florida and Beyond


Dr. Alan H. Chambers

University of Florida
Homestead, FL


Vanilla has potential to be among the highest grossing agricultural commodities in Florida. Spices like vanilla comprise a small portion of our diet, but have major impacts on the sensory quality of our food. Vanilla extract comes from the cured beans of either Vanilla planifolia or V. x tahitensis as legally defined by the FDA. V. planifolia is native to North and Central America, but Madagascar is today’s leading vanilla grower. Domestic vanilla production is becoming increasingly attractive as international supplies are perennially strained. Additionally, demand for vanilla extract continues to increase as global food companies pledge to remove artificial ingredients from their products. Most vanillin, the primary flavor component of vanilla extract, is chemically synthesized, but vanilla extract has the potential to support growers domestically in Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico that are striving to meet an evolving consumer base favoring local, organic, and natural products. Vanilla is somewhat unique in that the species not been domesticated through plant improvement, and today’s international industry relies on cultivated, wild clones. Since 2016, we have collected around 300 vanilla accessions for trialing in Florida, and have connected with over 100 growers in southern Florida that are interested in commercial vanilla production. Internationally, we have collaborated with scientists around the world to genotype vanilla plants from over 17 countries. This genomics research recently uncovered three distinct types of V. planifolia that have yet to be evaluated phenotypically. This presentation will describe 1) our recent genomics work that uncovers hidden diversity in vanilla, 2) how the vanilla genome was used to identify potential bottlenecks in vanillin biosynthesis, and 3) our breeding work to develop superior vanilla cultivars for domestic and international production.


Dr. Alan H. Chambers leads the Tropical Fruit Genetics and Breeding lab at the University of Florida Tropical Research and Education Center. His program goals include creating new cultivars through traditional plant breeding and genomics-assisted plant breeding. The primary objectives of his program are to increase grower profitability, consumer excitement for fresh produce, and deliver genetic solutions that protect the environment. Focus species include vanilla, mango, passion fruit, papaya, and others.


Dr. Chambers has degrees from Brigham Young University (Genetics and Biotechnology, BS), Cornell University (Plant Pathology, MS), and the University of Florida (Horticultural Sciences, PhD). He was recruited by PepsiCo Agro Discovery after the completion of his PhD in February 2014 to support raw material innovation research. He joined the faculty at the University of Florida in 2016.