In Search of the Cacao Genome

Believe it or not, two separate groups of scientist have cracked the cacao genome, the genetic code of the Food of the Gods

You may have heard of the Human Genome Project a few years back... but have you heard the news about the cacao genome? Probably not. For some reason, the chocolicious equivalent of the HGP didn't garner much attention.

In fact, hardly anyone realizes that the race to unlock chocolate's secret code quietly succeeded in yielding not one but two "rough drafts" of cocoa DNA in 2010 -- several years earlier than expected.

A Tasty Race

Like the Human Genome Project, the effort to sequence chocolate's DNA was a hotbed of competition.

The candy company Mars and its collaborators edged out competitor Hershey and its consortium with the announcement of its success in sequencing the cocoa genome in September 2010... because the latter group decided to wait until it formally published its draft, and had allowed other scientists to analyze it.

That's the scientifically appropriate way to do it, of course, but the Mars group got the glory -- even though the race was basically a tie.

Double Draft

The Mars draft, the fruit of the Cacao Genome Project, sequenced 92% of DNA of a cacao variety known as Matina 1-6, accounting for about 35,000 genes.

The Hershey version read 84% of the Belizean Criollo variety (a.k.a. B97-61/B2), or about 28,800 genes. The International Cocoa Genome Sequencing Consortium formally published these results in December 2010.

Imagine...

I don't know how you feel, but I was both outraged and intrigued to learn all this. Outraged because no one made a big deal about it, which I find confusing. They made a big deal about sequencing the mouse genome, and almost nobody except cats and coyotes eat mice.

I was intrigued because of the possibilities. Now that we know where all the little cocoa genes are, we can do fun things with them. How about easing the natural bitterness of raw cacao, or doubling the size of cacao pods, or engineering a new variety to compete with Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario?

That's the kind of Frankenfood I could really get behind.

The Reality

Of course, none of that is likely to happen soon. The first real advantages of having cracked the genetic code of Theobroma cacao will be in finding ways to help everyone's favorite tree resist disease and drought and, perhaps, grow in a wider variety of climates.

Currently, it's mostly grown in mountainous, jungly parts of the world by about 6.5 million farmers, and takes an annual hit of about a billion dollars in damages from fungal disease. If we can figure out how to stop that, we can have more chocolate on our hands... and it might be cheaper.

That alone makes further research on the cacao genome worth fighting for.

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