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Scientists to Begin Mapping the Cocoa Genome

BY Admin  June 26, 2008 at 4:50 PM EST

Cacoa pods: Photo Randolph Femmer, NBII

The privately held candy company will work with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and IBM to analyze the more than 400 million parts of the cocoa genome. They’ll make the data freely available to the public — including rival candy companies.

“Once we have the whole genome, [candy makers] will be able to go in and look at all the genes they’re interested in,” USDA research geneticist Ray Schnell told the Associated Press. “They’ll all be interested in flavor genes.”

The main value of the work, however, will be in helping scientists develop stronger cocoa crops that are more resistant to threats like drought, disease and pests, the company said in a statement. That could help farmers in places like West Africa, which produces 70 percent of the world’s cocoa and has battled drought and rising temperatures over the past few years.

Cocoa prices have risen nearly 50 percent in the past year because of dwindling supplies. Fungal diseases, meanwhile, are estimated to cost cocoa farmers an estimated $700 million annually, according to the AP.

Cocoa will join a list of other lucrative crops whose genomes have been sequenced — the first was rice, in 2002, others include corn and wheat.

Mars’s plan to sequence the cocoa genome is “forward-thinking,” David Morris, a senior analyst with the market research firm Mintel, told the Washington Post. “Looking across the board at commodity price increases and the fact that the planet will be increasingly taxed to produce food commodities, they’re planning accordingly.”

The researchers predict that it will take about a year to sequence cocoa’s DNA, according to the Washington Post. Then, scientists from IBM’s Computational Biology Center will analyze the sequence.

“That’s where the fun begins,” center manager Ajay Royyuru told the Post. “You have the sequence and you start asking what you can learn from the genome and you can get answers to these questions.”

While very little cocoa is produced in the U.S., the USDA has an interest in the crop because so many domestically produced items, such as raisins and almonds, are tied to chocolate products, the AP reported.