Mars funds €6m research to guard world’s chocolate

SCIENTISTS launched a five-year project yesterday aimed at safeguarding the world’s chocolate supply by dissecting the genome of the cocoa bean.

A US Department of Agriculture team based in Miami, Florida, funded with more than €6.3 million from Mars, will analyse 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 believed to cost cocoa farmers an estimated €442m annually. The analysis will not only identify what traits make cacao trees susceptible, but it will allow scientists — and chocolate makers — to better understand every aspect of cocoa, from its ability to sustain drought to the way it tastes.

The project’s backers say the work stands to be a boon to farmers, largely in Africa, who produce about 70% 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 Centre at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, NY, said the cocoa genome project capitalises on advances from examining the far more complicated human genome. An IBM team will participate in the cocoa efforts.

“The genome revolution is under way 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 Mars, 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.


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