Scientists have unveiled their preliminary findings on the cacao (chocolate) genome sequence, which has been made available in the public domain. This research is the result of a joint endeavor supported by Mars Inc., The USDA-ARS (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service) and IBM. According to Mars, it is aimed at improving the cocoa-growing process which will benefit farmers worldwide.

The scientists say this breakthrough is a first step in advancing farmers’ ability to plant higher yielding, more robust, more drought-resistant and disease-resistant crops.

The research results will be available to the public with permanent access via the Cacao Genome Database. Mars Inc. informs that the data will remain perpetually open without patent. Having the data available for everyone will also allow scientists to begin applying the findings straight away in the efforts to improve crop cultivation.

There are about 6.5 million cocoa farmers worldwide; the majority of them have family run small holdings, for whom cocoa is vital for their economic survival. A significant number of nations depend economically on domestic cocoa production. Pests and diseases have repeatedly caused economic loss, devastation and misery for many cocoa farmers.

Howard-Yana Shapiro, Ph.D., global head of plant science and research at Mars, Incorporated, said:

As the global leader in cocoa science, we understand the importance of not only investing in this research, but making it publicly available for all to benefit. As a private company, Mars is in a unique position to drive and fund fundamental science that will support its long term focus and vision. Although it may not benefit the bottom line in the short term, in the long run, it will ensure mutually beneficial results for the company, cocoa farmers and tree crop production in key regions of the world.

In its web site, Mars writes that this milestone in the project was achieved three years early and marks a significant scientific landmark that is already beginning to benefit millions of farmers, especially in West Africa. Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa production comes from West Africa.

A Mars. Inc. press release today writes:

By making the results publicly available, scientists will have access to key learnings to advance plant science, while plant breeders and farmers around the world will be able to develop cacao trees that are more sustainable, and can better fend off the environmental assaults that inflict $700 to $800 million in damages to farmers’ crops each year.

Shapiro said:

Genome sequencing helps eliminate much of the guess-work of traditional crop cultivation. Cocoa is what some researchers describe as an ‘orphan crop,’ because it has been the subject of little agricultural research compared to corn, wheat and rice. This effort, which will allow fast and accurate traditional breeding, is about applying the best of what science has to offer in taking an under-served crop and under-served population and giving them both the chance to flourish.

Ajay Royyuru, senior manager, IBM Computational Biology Center, said:

The collaboration with Mars and the USDA-ARS leverages more than a decade of IBM Research’s experience in computational biology, as well as the power of the Blue Gene supercomputer. By assembling the sequence fragments into the complete genome sequence and developing a detailed genetic map, we can help maximize the potential yield and income for cocoa farmers and catalyze future research and endeavors involving the cacao tree.

Chocolate consists of a number of raw and processed foods from the tropical Theobroma cocao tree. According to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, cocao has been cultivated in Mexico and Central America for at least three thousand years. The Aztecs used to have a chocolate drink called xocolātl, which in the Aztec language (Nahuatl) means “bitter water”.

Cacao seeds need to be fermented to develop the flavor; without doing so they have an intense, bitter taste. When the beans have been fermented they are dried, cleaned and roasted. The shell is removed to produce cacao nibs, which are ground into a cocoa mass, a rough form of pure chocolate. The cocoa mass is typically liquefied and molded either with or without other ingredients into a chocolate liquor, which may be processed into either cocoa solids or cocoa butter.

Baking chocolate is usually unsweetened and contains mainly cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

Most chocolates we eat today contain cocoa solids, cocoa butter or some other fat, and sugar. Milk chocolate has either milk powder or condensed milk added, while white chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, milk, but no cocoa solids.

Approximately 70% of global cocoa production comes from West Africa, with 43% coming from The Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire). Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, including West Africa, child labor is commonly used in cocoa farming.

The World Cocoa Foundation says that about 50 million people depend on cocoa farming for their livelihood.

Spelling: Cacao is unadulterated, the plant or the bean, while Cocoa tends to refer to the product when some processing has occurred. Cocoa is often used to mean both, but cacao is never used in English to refer to the processed product.

Source: Mars Inc., IBM, Wikipedia.

Written by Christian Nordqvist