A breakthrough in cocoa genetics by a collaboration involving Mars, USDA and IBM will accelerate research into the production of trees that can better resist drought, disease and pests, and has met with an enthusiastic welcome from leading cocoa scientists in the UK.
The partnership, which includes scientists based at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the US Department of Agriculture and Science as well as researchers working at IBM’s Thomas J Watson Research Center, has achieved preliminary sequencing of the cocoa genome.
The team said it will benefit not only the chocolate industry, but cocoa growers in West Africa, a region where 70 per cent of the world's cocoa is produced, and in other tropical zones.
Fungal diseases can destroy seed-bearing pods and wipe out up to 80 per cent of the cocoa crop, and cause an estimated $700m in losses each year.
The researchers including ARS based molecular biologist David Kuhn and geneticist Raymond Schnell said that they released the findings of sequencing into the public domain in order to assist scientists to begin applying the findings immediately to crop cultivation efforts.
Penny Tricker, research fellow working on cocoa research at Reading University, told ConfectioneryNews.com that the development represents a ‘breakthrough’ for cocoa research.
She explained that preliminary sequencing is the ‘hardest part’ of the genome discovery process and access to this data opens up multiple possibilities for researchers to use knowledge gained from the genome sequencing of other species, which will result in the transfer of their beneficial traits to cocoa trees.
“This detailed genetic map means we can conduct much more directed research. We are now in a position to apply well documented gene pathways from other plants such as Thale Cress to try and produce cocoa trees that have better drought tolerance and oxidative stress resistance,” said Tricker.
She said that the preliminary genome sequencing involved represents the genetic background of plants most commonly found in cocoa growing regions.
Tricker said the move to release the data into the public domain did not surprise her, despite the involvement of confectionery company Mars, who could have had a commercial advantage in withholding the information.
“Step changes in genome sequencing really require a collaborative effort across industry and academia. They won’t happen with one company doing research in isolation,” stressed the cocoa researcher.
Tricker’s colleague, Paul Hadley, professor of horticultural crop physiology at Reading University, said the impact of the findings for the chocolate industry or even the cocoa grower will really be in the medium to long term.
“Translating the knowledge that comes from this landmark sequencing through to breeding programmes and through to the farmers getting their hands on seedlings with improved disease and drought resistance will take some time.”
But he agrees that the development is ground breaking and said it also means that cocoa will no longer be the ‘orphan crop’ compared to corn wheat and rice in terms of focused breeding research.
The Mars and ARS backed research team said it will continue to improve the quality and analyze the properties of the cacao genome sequence in preparation for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.