DNA of Chocolate Almost in the Bag

October 18th, 2010 | Sources: Washington Post


A team of scientists at the Mars candy company announced recently that it has almost completed a project to sequence the genome of the cacao tree, whose seeds are used to produce chocolate. The team hopes its contributions will help scientists create cacao trees that are less vulnerable to disease and easier to grow.

Mars makes all-time favorite candies like Snickers and M&Ms. The company spent nearly $10 million on the project, yet it intends to make its findings public once the work is done.

“The information is so rich and so accurate we felt there was no reason to hold back,” Howard-Yana Shapiro, Mars’ global staff officer of plant science and research told the Washington Post.

Traditional cacao tree breeding methods involve a time-consuming, hit-or-miss process in which plant scientists try to find the trees with the best traits (for example, producing the sweetest chocolate or a tendency to be disease-free) and reproduce them. That process can require 15 years to complete because it takes that long to be sure the tree can defend itself against diseases.

But once the cacao tree’s DNA has been sequenced, scientists hope they can complete this process in 2-3 years. For example, by studying the genetic code from a young tree, they can find out quickly whether it possesses genes that can help it fend off diseases.

It’s possible the Mars group’s discovery might lead to better-tasting chocolate as well. According to Shapiro, the amount of fatty acids in the cocoa is key to the taste of the end-product. “Now finally, we have insight on how to stabilize it and raise it over time,” Shapiro told the Post.

Nearly 70% of the world’s chocolate comes from the cacao trees of West Africa, particularly Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.


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