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Most of us never consider where we get vanilla, that ubiquitous flavor found in everything from ice cream to over-the-counter medicines.

Elo Life Systems does. The Durham food and agriculture company is applying the power of genomics to improve the plant that supplies the most widely used extract in the consumer products industry.

And it’s none too soon for the long list of multinational companies that use vanilla – close to 18,000 products contain natural or artificial vanilla flavoring. Or for farmers in some of the poorest countries in the world who count on the crop to feed their families.

The problem is that vanilla farming hasn’t changed much since the vanilla bean was first domesticated in Mexico during the Aztec Empire era. We’re talking about the 15th century.

Over the years, production has migrated to diverse regions around the world. Today most vanilla comes from Madagascar, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, Mexico, Uganda, India and a handful of other countries.

Vanilla bean blossoms require hand pollinating.

The vanilla supply chain has traditionally been plagued by a multitude of shortcomings. Among them a lack of innovation, wide fluctuations in crop output, price volatility, fungal disease and productivity issues. These factors threaten the sustainability and profitability of vanilla and the financial stability of those who grow it.

Elo scientists thought this was a global challenge well worth tackling. So they developed a high-resolution genomic sequence of the vanilla plant that provides a blueprint for improving its quality, resilience and yield. Elo had help from Alan Chambers, Ph.D., of the Tropical Research and Extension Center at the University of Florida. He’s a leading authority on the biology of vanilla.

“Our experience with a variety of different crops – and our knowledge of genomics-based technologies – have enabled us to find solutions to difficult global challenges like sustainable vanilla production,” said Elo CEO Fayaz Khazi, Ph.D., in an interview with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

“Insights from this highly detailed sequence of the vanilla genome allow us to take the first significant step toward improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in vanilla-producing regions.”

Making a better bean through genomics

Khazi said Elo used its proprietary computational biology pipeline to identify the genetic factors that can improve the vanilla orchid. The data also introduce groundbreaking ways to produce more vanilla with less labor.

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