[OPINION] Fantastic coconuts and what to do next

 

Often we struggle because we somehow don’t fit certain conventions. When we go out of the pattern or configuration, we are considered a rebel or an outcast. In this case, humans and coconuts are very much alike. 

Aside from being the plant symbol of the tropics, coconut trees represent versatility and resourcefulness, as practically all of its parts are used in various agricultural, industrial, and scientific functions. This is why it's popularly regarded as the tree of life.

One essential part is its nut. It contains white meat (solid endosperm) and water (liquid endosperm). The former is what we use here in the Philippines for our world-famous halo-halo, while the latter is the healthy coconut water or buko juice we drink.

The white meat matures into a stage where it has a great amount of coconut oil, known as copra. Several studies have proven the nutritional benefits we can get from these coconut parts, so it’s more than just the tree of life – it is life. (READ: WATCH: Men's choir performs Ryan Cayabyab's 'Da Coconut Nut' on plane)

Unity in diversity, the Asian coconut way

Imagine if all humans looked exactly the same. How boring do you think the Earth would be? Variations are what make life exciting. Plus, the diversity that we see and those we don’t could be a source of new knowledge. 

Interestingly, we in Asia are blessed to have a diversity of coconut fruits. There are two equally amazing coconut fruit types in the Philippines alone: the makapuno and the lono.

Makapuno is a scientific gem. As a coconut, it is out of the ordinary because it can produce a very thick white meat that fills up almost the whole cavity – something that never happens to the normal type. The popular term makapuno is from “maka” or “almost” and “puno” or “full.” Makapuno is 4 to 5 times more expensive than the normal coconut in the local market, and is utilized for dessert preparation, delicacies, and other industrial and food potentials.

Aside from its economic importance, the growing interest in makapuno is also attributed to its possibility of being a genetic tumor in higher plants, thus presenting another model system to study tumorigenesis in plants. Imagine understanding how this fruit develops to have a larger fruit product, and applying that knowledge in developing other plants capable of producing higher-yielding fruit. This could aid in the continuing efforts to feed the ever-growing population.

Due to its somewhat endemic or native nature, most comparative studies on coconut and makapuno endosperm focusing on genetics, cytological, biochemical, and a few molecular mechanisms have been conducted and were mainly performed by Filipino scientists. Its first known scientific publication was in a local journal too. But this phenomenon in coconuts is not exclusive to the Philippines. Makapuno unites Asians as this type also occurs in other Asian regions.

Coconut curd is a general term for the makapuno type. Asian countries have their own local names for it: dua sap (Vietnam); dikiri pol (Sri Lanka); kopyor (Indonesia); maphrao kathi (Thailand); dahi nariyel (Myanmar); thairu thengai (India); dong kathy (Cambodia); and in Oceania, niu garuk (Papua New Guinea).

These variants all have an overproliferating solid endosperm, less to no water, are non-germinating, and are economically profitable. These genetic resources from the same coconut fruit type are an Asian reservoir of information and products. It is now in our hands to collaboratively understand and sustain them.

Another local coconut fruit variant with observed high oil exists only in the Philippines. The lono variant is believed to have originated from La Union, Philippines. Now, lono cultivars can also be found at the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA)-Albay and at the International Coconut Genebank for South Asia (ICG-SA) for the conservation of their germplasm. The Tissue Culture Division of the PCA at the Albay Research Center aims to upgrade the protocol in embryo culture and enable the rescue of the lono embryos. This will then lead to the establishment of a lono plantation.

Currently, there are a limited number of studies on lono nuts. But the observed high oil is postulated to be due to the oil bodies (oleosomes) found in its soft white meat. Again, such an interesting feature, once fully understood, could help in the breeding of coconuts with higher oil yield.

Fantastic coconuts and what to do next

Philippine coconut production alone has shown a decline over the past years due to low product prices, aging trees, and destructive natural disasters, diseases, and insect pests. It is therefore necessary to continuously study and propagate coconuts with improved characteristics like high quality and yield of endosperm, which will be beneficial to an estimated 3.5 million coconut farmers and 22 million Filipinos, both directly and indirectly dependent on the coconut industry. (READ: The plight of Leyte's coconut farmers

There are ways we can help, and the coconut’s uniqueness could be the key. Both makapuno and lono fruit variants are a gold mine for scientists: we could make more sense of how the “normal” coconut works if we have natural variants disrupting the normal processes. We could not be any happier that Asia has them. (READ: How beekeeping helped a Sorsogon coconut farm

The dawn of –omics sciences is here: the era of big data. With the advent of next generation sequencing (NGS), specifically RNA-Seq, more genes could be studied at a given time giving us a more complete snapshot of what’s happening inside the makapuno and lono types.

We at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, in partnership with the Philippine Genome Center-Program for Agriculture, the Department of Science and Technology, and the Philippine Coconut Authority are now currently unveiling unique genes that may be responsible for these unique characters. We are truly excited to crack open more discoveries soon.

As one of the young scientists investigating these coconut types, I hope to understand these deviations at the molecular level. We believe that science is indispensable in improving coconut varieties and that such a feat could translate to a higher profit for our Filipino and Asian coconut farmers.

The coconut tree is not just the tree of life; it’s a life lesson too. We should be able to embrace our uniqueness, as this may provide powerful diversity and knowledge. This is especially what a progressive Asia needs. – Rappler.com

Jickerson Lado is an assistant professor of genetics and cell and molecular biology at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, currently engaged in research on coconuts. He tweets at @jickersonlado.