A team of French-led scientists has unlocked the genetic code of chocolate. The scientists, steered by research agency Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), just unveiled the DNA of the high-end Criollo variety of Theobroma cacao. Theobroma cacao is used primarily to manufacture gourmet chocolates. This marks the first time that a genome study of the cacao tree has been published in an academic journal.
CIRAD is a research agency designed to help developing countries develop their agricultural industries, in a form of French scientific diplomacy. They partnered in this project with scientists in 18 different countries, the United States Department of Agriculture, the University of Reading in Britain, and the Biscuit Cake Chocolate & Confectionery Association. The latter is a British trade group representing sweets manufacturers in both London and the European Union. No word whether they're hiring.
According to a press release for the Theobroma study, unspecified “support” was granted through chocolate manufacturers Hershey Corp. and Valrhona along with the Venezuelan Ministry of Science, Technology and Industry, among others.
The DNA of the cacao tree was just published in the scientific journal Nature Genetics. Parsing through the scientific jargon, the study abstract indicates economic benefits to the study:
We sequenced and assembled the draft genome of Theobroma cacao, an economically important tropical-fruit tree crop that is the source of chocolate. This assembly corresponds to 76% of the estimated genome size and contains almost all previously described genes, with 82% of these genes anchored on the 10 T. cacao chromosomes. Analysis of this sequence information highlighted specific expansion of some gene families during evolution, for example, flavonoid-related genes. It also provides a major source of candidate genes for T. cacao improvement.
While Theobroma is often used to manufacture gourmet chocolates, that particular variety of cacao tree often remains vulnerable to disease. Information gleaned from this study could be used to breed bioresistant varieties of Theobroma.
2010 was a bumper year for deciphering the genome sequence of cacao. A rival cacao DNA study was funded by Hershey's archenemies over at Mars. This study, the Cacao Genome Database, focuses on the more commercially mainstream cacao variety of and has not been published in an academic journal as of press time.
According to research team member Siela Maximova of Penn State, the Theobroma study could have big benefits for chocolate lovers:
“Our analysis of the Criollo genome has uncovered the genetic basis of pathways leading to the most important quality traits of chocolate--oil, flavonoid and terpene biosynthesis […] It has also led to the discovery of hundreds of genes potentially involved in pathogen resistance, all of which can be used to accelerate the development of elite varieties of cacao in the future.”
Other genes found in the project were responsible for the creation of cocoa butter, the production of flavonoids, natural antioxidants, hormones, pigments, and aromas.
The most likely initial ramification from this study will be the creation of bioengineered disease-resistant fine cocoa. While this will be a boon for consumers, the resulting commodity price changes might not be as good for cacao wholesalers and speculators.
[Photo via Wikipedia user Andre Karwath]
Follow Neal Ungerleider on Twitter.