September 15, 2010

USDA-Led Group Sequences Cocoa Plant Genome

Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with computer manufacturer IBM and candy producer Mars Inc., have successfully mapped the genome of the cocoa-bean producing cacao tree--the first step towards sustaining and improving the world's chocolate supply.

The findings, which were released on Wednesday and announced via press release, were a result of a partnership between the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS); the McLean, Virginia-based maker of Snickers bars and M&Ms candies, among other products; and scientists at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York state.

Researchers from the Clemson University Genomics Institute, the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Washington State University, Indiana University, the National Center for Genome Resources, and PIPRA (Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture) at the University of California-Davis also took part in the study.

According to Reuters, "The particular cultivar that was sequenced--Matina 1-6--forms the basis of 99 percent of the world's cocoa, and is a promising first step in advancing farmers' ability to plant more robust, higher yielding and drought and disease-resistant trees."

"Cocoa comes from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao," the USDA press release said. "The tree seeds are processed into cocoa beans that are the source of cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate. But fungal diseases can destroy seed-bearing pods and wipe out up to 80 percent of the crop, and cause an estimated $700 million in losses each year."

"Scientists worldwide have been searching for years for ways to produce cacao trees that can resist evolving pests and diseases, tolerate droughts and produce higher yields," they added. "But having the genome sequenced is expected to speed up the process of identifying genetic markers for specific genes that confer beneficial traits, enabling breeders to produce superior new lines through traditional breeding techniques."

According to a September 15 article by Andrew Pollack of The New York Times, the announcement comes as Mars competitor Hershey, has also sponsored work into the cocoa genome. Pollack reports that the Hershey-sponsored consortium of scientists from Pennsylvania State University and government labs in France has also completed a sequence, but that they are unable to announce their findings until a paper detailing their findings is printed in a scientific journal.


Image Caption: Cocoa beans in a cacao pod. Photo by Keith Weller


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