• 2 minute Read

Warning: DNA Discoveries by Mars, Hershey Could Lead to Advanced Chocoholism

Two new DNA sequencing studies could lead to the bioengineering of some delicious chocolate.

assorted chocolates

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
]

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