This four-year Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)-CASE studentship investigates the link between gene expression, biodiversity, phytochemical profile and postharvest processing, in order to improve resilience in vanilla quality and sustainability.

Vanilla remains one of the most universally popular flavours in industry – extending beyond food and beverages to perfumery, cosmetics and other products. However, in recent years, vanilla producers have struggled to keep up with increasing demand.

Plants are propagated by ‘cutting’, narrowing genetic diversity and leaving plantations prone to disease outbreaks and adverse weather. Pollination, harvest and curing are all done by hand, leading to high labour costs and long periods of processing. These factors drive price spikes of natural vanilla in the market, which is also undercut by readily available and cheaper substitutes.

We are exploring opportunities to increase sustainability, streamline postharvest processing and understand flavour development via a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)-CASE student (Siobhan Gardiner).

Vanilla pods
Siobhan Gardiner tending her vanilla plants.

Progress update

As part of her research, Siobhan has undertaken industrial placements with Unilever’s R&D centres in Vlaardingen in the Netherlands (with the flavour research expertise team) and at Colworth Park in the UK (at its Ice Cream Global Design Centre).

She was awarded the Best Lecture prize at the International Symposium on Phytochemicals in Medicine & Food 2015 in China and at the Science for the Green Economy 2016 Early Career Showcase in the UK, as well as being chosen for Voice of the Future 2015 and receiving the Institute of Food Science & Technology’s Young Ambassador Prize 2016.

Siobhan was also awarded a BBSRC Policy Fellowship in 2014-15, an Early Career MRSB (Royal Society of Biology) grant in 2015, a Phytochemical Society of Europe Early Career Researcher grant, and High Value Chemicals from Plants (via the BBSRC-NIBB) training grant in 2016.