Coconut trees grow slowly and are difficult to clone. Scientists from Leuven University and the alliance accelerated the reproduction of coconut seedlings and preserved the genetic resources of coconuts for a long time. This will help protect the biodiversity of coconut trees and meet the growing demand for coconuts and their derived products.
Coconut is the sixth most grown fruit on the planet, and the demand for it continues to grow. In recent years, consumer demand for coconut oil has continued to increase. Coconut water is also used as a natural substitute for sugary soft drinks. But coconut trees mainly grow in coastal areas near the equator and face many challenges: deadly yellowing, climate change, rising sea levels and outdated plantations. This is why researchers from the University of Leuven, the International Union of Biological Universities and CIAT have developed a method that can propagate coconut trees faster and store them more efficiently in the gene bank.
Bart Panis of the Tropical Crop Improvement Laboratory (KU Leuven) and Hannes Wilms, a PhD student of the Alliance, got their inspiration for their research from another fruit variety, the banana. From his research on banana plants, Panis suspects that certain plant hormones can also successfully function in coconut trees. "Coconut trees do not form side buds. They put all their energy into a branch to make it grow as fast and tall as possible. This makes it very difficult to clone and store these plants."
In their research, the scientists first extracted coconut tree embryos from coconuts. Then, they applied plant hormones to the meristems or growth points contained in the embryo. In this way, they not only succeeded in making the embryo form a bud, but also formed several lateral buds. In turn, they managed to separate these bud clusters and let new side buds grow on them. Their findings were published in Science Report.
"No one thinks we can do it. But we persevered. There are other methods of coconut tree plant propagation, but we believe that this is the first time and cost-effective method." Thousands of new samples can be obtained from the same coconut tree, and they have exactly the same genetic profile as the mother coconut tree. This provides huge potential for coconut plantations all over the world.
First, the team hopes to protect the genetic diversity of coconut trees as effectively as possible. It is very important to keep as many varieties of coconut trees as possible, because each variety has its own characteristics. Some are resistant to certain diseases or have better oil content, while others are more resistant to heat, drought or storms.
“Currently, the coconut tree is preserved as a tree collected in the wild. But some of the collections are threatened by fatal yellowing disease,” said Hannes Wilms, a co-author from the University of Leuven. “Our current technology can also allow the branches of coconut trees to be stored at ultra-low temperature and to be permanently stored in liquid nitrogen at minus 196°C.”
Panis said: "This is important for the future: If a new disease affects coconut production, there may be multiple varieties in the gene bank that can resist the disease and can be grown in the affected areas.”
For today's coconut production, this technology comes at the right time. “The demand for coconuts is huge. The existing plantations are very old and need to be replanted in a short period of time. So our technology meets the huge demand for healthy plant materials.”
The researchers have now filed a patent application. All that is needed now is additional funds to protect patents and further improve the technology. In this process, researchers will not ignore small-scale producers. Panis said: “Since coconut production is often in the hands of small farmers, we will include a special clause in the patent license: whoever applies our technology must ensure that small farmers can purchase planting materials at a reasonable price.”