Sequencing of cacao genome to help chocolate industry, farmers

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 16th September 2010

A collaboration between the US Department of Agriculture and chocolate giant Mars, Inc has announced the preliminary release of the sequenced genome of the cacao tree. The data is expected to help sustain the supply of high-quality cocoa to the $17 billion US chocolate industry and protect the livelihoods of small farmers around the world.

Cocoa comes from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. The tree’s seeds are processed into cocoa beans, which are the source of cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate. However, fungal diseases can destroy seed-bearing pods and wipe out up to 80 percent of the crop, causing an estimated US$700 million in losses each year.

Once a plant’s genome is sequenced, genetic markers can be more easily identified, then used as a ‘cheat sheet’ for crossbreeding plants.  The resulting trees can be bred to be better equipped to resist the droughts, diseases and pests that threaten this vital agricultural crop.

Sequencing cacao’s genome also will help researchers develop an overall picture of the plant’s genetic makeup, uncover the relationships between genes and traits, and broaden scientific understanding of how the interplay of genetics and the environment determines a plant’s health and viability.

Worldwide demand for cacao now exceeds production, and hundreds of thousands of small farmers and landholders throughout the tropics depend on cacao for their livelihoods. An estimated 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in West Africa.

“Because of the talent and dedication brought together by this unique partnership, researchers and plant breeders will be able to accelerate the genetic improvement of the cacao crop now cultivated in tropical regions around the world,” said Edward B. Knipling, ARS administrator. “This will benefit not only the chocolate industry, but also millions of small farmers who will be able to continue to make their living from cacao.”

The sequencing is a collaboration between USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Mars, scientists at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, and 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.

The research team will continue to improve the quality and analyze the properties of the cacao genome sequence in preparation for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of USDA. This research supports the USDA priority of promoting international food security, and USDA’s commitment to agricultural sustainability.