Mars combines with USDA and IBM to unlock cocoa potential

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 30th June 2008

The United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Mars, Incorporated, and IBM are combining their scientific resources to sequence and analyze the entire cocoa genome. Sequencing the cocoa genome is viewed by the organizations as a significant scientific step that may allow more directed breeding of cocoa plants and potentially enhance the quality of cocoa – the key ingredient in chocolate.

The collaboration hopes to 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. These crops may also help protect an important social, economic and environmental driver in Africa, where 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced.

“Sequencing the genomes of agriculture crops is a critical step if we want to better understand and improve a crop,” said Judy St. John, USDA-ARS Deputy Administrator for Crop Production and Protection.

Genome sequencing may help eliminate much of the guess-work of traditional breeding. If the sequencing is completed, it is hoped that scientists and farmers will be able to better identify the specific genetic traits that allow cocoa plants to produce higher yields and resist drought or pests.

“As the global leader in cocoa science, Mars saw the potential this research holds to help accelerate what farmers have been doing since the beginning of time with traditional breeding, ultimately improving cocoa trees, yielding higher quality cocoa and increasing income for farmers,” Howard-Yana Shapiro, Ph.D., global director of plant science for Mars, Incorporated, stated.

The group anticipates that it will take approximately five years to complete the entire sequencing, assembly, annotation and study of the cocoa genome. Scientists from USDA-ARS and Mars will conduct various aspects of the project at the USDA-ARS facility in Miami. Researchers at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, will use their computational biology technology and expertise to develop a detailed genetic map and assemble and study the cocoa genome.

“This collaboration is an opportunity for us to apply our computational biology and supercomputing expertise to help improve an economically important agricultural crop,” said Dr. Mark Dean, IBM Fellow and vice president, Technical Strategy and Global Operations, IBM Research.

Cocoa has, according to the group, been the subject of little agricultural research compared to other major crops such as corn, wheat and rice.

“We are delighted to work with Mars, USDA and IBM to allow free access to the cocoa genome sequence information in real time, while ensuring that the gene sequences will not be patented,” noted Alan Bennett, Executive Director of the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture. “Once its genome is sequenced, it has the potential to provide positive social, economic and environmental impact for the more than 6.5 million small family cocoa farmers around the world.”