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Erlinda P. Rillo

PCA-Albay to make Bicol coconut and makapuno hub

Dr. Erlinda Rillo is an agriculture expert in coconut crop production and coconut tissue culture.

NO-FRILLS RESEARCH and development efforts breathe life into the tree of life that is coconut.

A dedicated team of four scientists and nine laboratory aides work diligently in its quest to perfect the micropropagation protocols for coconut and makapuno at the 63-hectare Philippine Coconut Authority-Albay Research Center in Guinobatan, Albay.

"Micropropagation is ideally the best way to mass-produce planting materials," says Osmundo D. Orense, science research specialist at PCA-ARC's Tissue Culture Division.

Since 1990, TCD is hard at work refining techniques for coconut clonal propagation and makapuno embryo culture. Its aim is to step up the mass production of coconut planting materials.

Coconut clonal propagation

In clonal propagation, the coconut's tissues from parts like plumule (from the embryo) and inflorescence (flowers) undergo simulated growth in specially formulated medium of nutrients in a test tube. But given its hit-and-miss nature, the team has yet to perfect clonal propagation.

Orense explained it takes 13-24 months to complete the tissue culture process to produce a healthy coconut clone, following steps that require patience and precision. At present, they are still looking at the problems in each step such as mutation in tissues. He admits the difficulty of coconut research because results don't come easy.

It has been 16 years since ARC scientists took off from the clonal propagation project of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ).

"We need to assure the genetic integrity of the cultures and clones," explains Orense, who hopes to work on DNA fingerprinting and protein analysis with the second phase of the project funded by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development.

PCARRD also funded the first phase that ran for three years. PCARRD's fund assistance helped build the state-of-the-art ARC tissue culture laboratory and satellite laboratories in Cavite, Zamboanga, Pangasinan, Tacloban, and Davao.

Other research funds also came from the European Union, and Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

ARC scientists are hopeful that one day, they will be able to repeatedly produce at least 100 clones from coconut flowers, take them out from the laboratory, and successfully grow them all on soil. Only then will they be able to claim that the results are significant.

Embryo-cultured Makapuno

Embryo-cultured Makapuno is the pride of PCA-ARC. Division chief Erlinda P. Rillo, who has a rank of Scientist IV and grows makapuno embryos in test tubes at ARC laboratory for as long as she can remember, says that their embryo culture technique is now perfect.

"We now have an optimized embryo culture protocol that is transferable and allows for at least 50% success of all makapuno embryos planted. Before, only 10-20% success was achieved," says Rillo.

She says that if the plantation is relatively big, it is possible to achieve a 100% makapuno yield from ECM palms. She cites the 10-hectare ECM plantation in Pilar, Sorsogon, and the 8-hectare Mitra farm in Sto. Tomas, Batangas where ECM palms are producinq 98-100% makapuno nuts. These farms make the most of Rillo's expertise in embryo culture.

PCA-ARC's 1.5-hectare makapuno plantation is in the midst of other coconut varieties. It has 79-85% makapuno yields.

Rillo and her team improved the embryo culture technique of the late Dr. Emerita de Guzman of the University of the Philippines Los Baños developed in the 1960s.

With embryo culture, production of healthy makapuno plants is assured. On its own, makapuno embryo does not germinate. It needs to be "rescued" and "cultured,"
using a special medium of sugars, hormones, and other elements in the laboratory.

So what is so special about this mutant coconut of the Laguna variety, whose embryo rots eventually when not aided to develop normally?

It has multimillion-dollar industry potential. Local demand for the soft solid, jelly-like makapuno meat is 4 million kilograms a year. Less than 3% of the demand is being met. Food manufacturers and fast-food chains like Jollibee have huge requirements for makapuno. In 2004, it was exported to 41 countries.

Rillo says that makapuno's high galactomannan content - a cellulosic material-has a variety of untapped potential: in the food industry as an edible candy wrapper; a material in microchips; a substance in pharmaceuticals; and even as an ingredient in personal care like facial masks.

If only the Philippines had adequately funded and focused makapuno development program including product development, the country could be the biggest producer of makapuno and its high-value products in the world, Rillo explained.

That realization came in 1989 when she visited a laboratory culturing makapuno embryos in Bangkok, Thailand. To her surprise, the embryos were coming from Alaminos, Laguna, and the Thai scientist doing it was a UPLB graduate.

These ECMs were planted in Thailand's Makapuno Island, south of Bangkok. What she saw prompted her to do something about this taken-for-granted high-value coconut germplasm.

"Makapuno is coconut. I am working at the Philippine Coconut Authority, and nobody is doing makapuno research," she decries.

She talks about development efforts in India, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam-countries that try to develop their own kind of makapuno. In the Philippines where the tree of life thrives in abundance, makapuno is at the backside, basically because copra, the traditional money-maker, cannot be made from it.

And so Rillo, who vows to keep going even after retirement, brought her makapuno advocacy to industries and local govemments in coconut-producing provinces.

In Bicol, she was able to encourage three local govemments to shell out P300,OOO each to ARC to produce ECM seedlings. This scheme hopes to make Bicol a region with the most number of ECM palms in the country. "There are many interested persons willing to invest once affordable planting materials are available," she says. One ECM seedling sells at P600.

At present, nine govemment and private embryo culture laboratories are producing ECM seedlings in Albay, Cavite, Pangasinan, Leyte, Davao, Zamboanga, Pasig, Tiaong, and Lipa. PCARRD established the first six laboratories, which also funded the Makapuno Comprehensive Technology Development and Commercialization Program.

In 10 years' time, Rillo and her team are looking at a significant makapuno industry with diversified food and non-food products already in the market.

-S&T Post, Vol. XXIV, 2nd Quarter 2006

Interviewed by: Eileen C. Cardona, Science Research Specialist II, PCARRD