Yet, even with this initial genetic data, the researchers faced a conundrum. They could find no Tahitian vanilla growing wild in Guatemala, which is where its closest relatives grew. The researchers decided to give their genetic data a second look. This time, by comparing patterns of relatedness in DNA sequences from both the nucleus and the chloroplast (a plant cell's photosynthetic factory), they discovered that Tahitian vanilla fit the pattern of being a hybrid offspring between V. planifolia and V. odorata.
"And that's where the Maya cultivators come in," Lubinsky explained. "The pre-Columbian Maya had been managing their forests for millennia to cultivate cacao and to make chocolate, and we know they were also cultivating vanilla to use it as a chocolate spice. The Maya created these forest gardens by introducing different types of species of wild cacao and vanilla from the surrounding forests, which meant that species that had previously been geographically separated were then able to hybridize because they were in the same place. That's the scenario we present in our research paper for how Tahitian vanilla got started. It is an evolutionary product, but also a Maya artifact."
Seung-Chul Kim, an assistant professor of systematics in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences and a coauthor on the research paper, served as an adviso
|Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala|
University of California - Riverside