Government scientists are launching a five-year project Thursday aimed at safeguarding the world's chocolate supply by dissecting the genome of the cocoa bean.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture team based here, funded with more than $10 million from Mars Inc., will analyze the more than 400 million parts of the cocoa genome, a process that could help battle crippling crop diseases and even lead to better-tasting chocolate.
Fungal diseases are estimated to cost cocoa farmers an estimated $700 million annually. The analysis will not only identify what traits make cacao trees susceptible, but it will allow scientists — and candymakers — to better understand every aspect of cocoa, from its ability to sustain drought to the way it tastes.
"Once we have the whole genome, they'll be able to go in and look at all the genes they're interested in," said Ray Schnell, a research geneticist with the USDA, referring to candymakers. "They'll all be interested in flavor genes."
The project's backers say the work stands to be a boon to farmers, largely in Africa, who produce about 70 percent of the world's cocoa. By determining which breeds of cacao trees are most appropriate for a specific locale and most able to fend off disease and drought, farmers could increase crop yields.
Ajay Royyuro, who leads the Computational Biology Center at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., said the cocoa genome project capitalizes on advances from examining the far more complicated human genome. An IBM team will participate in the cocoa efforts.
"The genome revolution is underway and there is a way in which that revolution can be leveraged to have an economic impact," Royyuro said.
Though the project is funded by Virginia-based Mars — the maker of M&Ms, Snickers and other fixtures in American chocolate — its findings will be made public, even to its competitors. Mars says there will be more information to examine than any one company could ever do alone, and that the main reasons for cracking the genome are to combat cocoa pests and disease.
"For us, the fact that Hershey has similar information that every other chocolate company in the world has, that's fine," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, Mars' global director of plant science, in a phone interview from Rome.
Shapiro said he did not expect improvements in yields from research would lead to larger overall cocoa crops. He said higher yields would allow farmers to devote some of their land to other lucrative crops that could boost their paychecks.
Virtually no cocoa is produced in the U.S., but the USDA has an interest in the crop because so many domestically produced items (think raisins and almonds, for example) are important to chocolate.