June 26, 2008

Chocolate Firm To Map DNA Of Cocoa

Chocolate maker Mars Inc announced on Thursday that it would collaborate with IBM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to sequence the DNA of the cocoa tree.

The initiative, known as the Chocolate Genome Project, would assist in breeding programs that scientists hope will improve the quality and health of cocoa crops. Such improvements would allow for crops that are more resistant to pests, diseases, and water shortages.

"Sequencing the cocoa genome is a significant scientific step that will allow more directed breeding of cocoa plants and perhaps even enhance the quality of cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate," said Mars in a statement.

"The collaboration will enable farmers to plant better quality cocoa and, more importantly, help create healthier, stronger cocoa crops with higher yields, pest and disease resistance, and increased water and nutrient use efficiency."

Howard-Yana Shapiro, global director of plant science at Mars, said African farmers would benefit the most since they comprised close to two-thirds of the world's cocoa production.

The sequencing would "ultimately improve cocoa trees, yield higher quality cocoa and increase income for farmers", he told BBC News.

Sequencing, assembling, annotating and analyzing the cocoa genome is expected to take around five years to complete.   However, information will be publicly available for no charge as the project unfolds through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA).  None of the sequencing will be patented.

Although traditional breeding techniques can alter crops, obtaining the complete genome provides scientists the opportunity to hasten the changing of the plant's qualities.

"Sequencing the genomes of agriculture crops is a critical step if we want to better understand and improve a crop," said Judy St. John of the USDA.

Rice was the first crop to have its genome sequenced as part of an international endeavor that took years and was finally completed in 2002. A team of researchers at the University of Hawaii sequenced the genome of a genetically engineered papaya in April of this year.

The global cocoa market is currently around $5 billion annually.


On the Net:

Mars Inc.