On the application’s advantage to coconut growers, he said the method they developed now would be very interesting for the micropropagation of hybrid palms or rare coconut palms such as the “thairu thengai” (curd coconut in India). But of course it could be used to propagate existing dwarf and tall varieties.
Asked how the research on coconut palm would benefit farmers, Wilms said Elite Coconut palms that are resistant to diseases/drought tolerant or tasty are expensive to plant, but could be worth it for the farmer in the long term.
“However, buying such palms is a big upfront cost if one wants to plant his/her whole field in one go. But via our method, we could micropropagate the material and lower the cost of this elite material, improving the industry as a whole– providing farmers cheaper and better material,” he said.
The scientists said that first and foremost, they wanted to safeguard the coconut tree’s genetic diversity as efficiently as possible.
Noting that it is very crucial to preserve as many varieties of the coconut plant because each variety has specific characteristics, they said some are resistant to a particular disease or have a better oil composition, while others are more resistant to heat, drought or storms.
“Currently, the coconut tree is kept as a tree in field collections. But some of these collections are threatened by Lethal Yellowing Disease,” said Hannes Wilms, a co-author from KU Leuven.
“Our technique now also provides many shoots of the coconut plant that can be preserved for eternity by cryopreservation, in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 C,” he said.
Panis said this is important for the future: if a new disease were to affect coconut production, there may be a variety in the gene bank that is resistant to this disease and can be planted out in the affected areas.
He said for today’s coconut production, too, the technique comes at the right time.
“There’s a huge demand for coconut. The existing plantations are old and need to be replanted in the short term,” Panis said.
“So our technique meets the great demand for healthy plant material”, he added.