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Cocoa CRISPR: How gene editing could save Hershey’s Kisses

Cocoa CRISPR: How gene editing could save Hershey’s Kisses
[Photo: Keith Weller, USDA ARS/Wikimedia Commons]

Scientists have been trying to save chocolate for years, and not in the hoarding-Halloween-candy-until-Easter sort of way. The cacao tree, which grows the seeds that eventually turn into Toblerone bars and Hershey’s Kisses, faces a laundry list of threats, including pests, fungal infections, climate change, and more. Since no one wants to live in a world without chocolate, researchers have been working on a variety of methods to save the precious tree, including selective breeding, farmer education, new planting methods, and irrigation and pest-management techniques.

“In West Africa, severe outbreaks of fungal diseases can destroy all cacao fruit on a single farm,” said Andrew Fister, a post-doctoral fellow at Penn State University, in a press release.

Currently, plant diseases kill 20%-30% of cocoa pods pre-harvest, according to Fister, but he and his team have a plan to save chocolate and earn the eternal gratitude of chocoholics around the world. Fister and his colleagues—Siela Maximova, Lena Landherr Sheaffer, and Mark Guiltinan—recently reported the results of their new study in Frontiers in Plant Science, where they demonstrate the feasibility of using cutting-edge CRISPR technology to improve disease resistance in cacao. Building on previous work on cacao genes, they used CRISPR tech to knock out a gene that made the cacao plants vulnerable to disease.

The treated leaves proved to have greater resistance to a common cacao disease, which could be a game changer for cacao crops. The researchers also created CRISPR gene-edited cacao babies, which they will grow into trees to test the continued effectiveness.

As for how that CRISPR-edited cacao tastes, well, we may never know. Currently, the USDA does not require labeling or regulation of CRISPR modified plants.

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