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Unwrapping the Chocolate Genome
Mars Seeks Tougher Cacao Trees

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008

To save chocolate lovers from the agony of a potential candy bar shortage, McLean candy giant Mars is investing $10 million in a five-year project to develop cacao trees that fight drought, disease and poor harvests.

Mars will announce today that it is partnering with IBM and the Department of Agriculture to sequence and analyze the entire cocoa genome. The team will be identifying the characteristics that make a better cacao tree. Then it plans to breed the genetically superior specimens to battle the foes that have shrunk the number of beans to make chocolate over the years.

"We have the ability as a private company to take charge of the future," Howard-Yana Shapiro, global director of plant science for Mars, said.

Unlocking the secrets of the genome and eliminating the guesswork in traditional breeding could bring economic stability to the 6.5 million small family cocoa farmers around the world and help fend off the environmental assaults that inflict $700 million to $800 million in damages to farmers each year, Shapiro said.

Mars plans to make the research results free and accessible through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture, a group that supports agricultural innovation, as they become available. The intent is to prevent opportunists from patenting the plant's key genes.

Although chocolate seems ubiquitous, the cocoa on which it depends is a volatile crop. West Africa, which produces 70 percent of the world's cocoa, has been hammered by bad weather in the past few years. Rainfall has dropped, as temperatures rise.

Decades ago, Brazil was a top cocoa exporter. Then a fungus known as witches' broom attacked cacao trees, devastating the industry. About 10 to 15 percent of cocoa comes from the Americas, Shapiro said.

In the past year, cocoa prices have risen almost 50 percent as global supply of the beans has shrunk. Cocoa futures fell nearly 1 percent yesterday.

Those kind of economics have focused scientific attention on the cacao plant. In recent years, wheat, rice and corn have been the most common subject of genetic research and alterations. The Mars initiative is among the few genetic studies of cocoa, although currently, there are a number of plant genome projects in Brazil involving cocoa along with eucalyptus, sugar cane and citrus.

"It's forward-thinking," said David Morris, senior analyst with market research firm Mintel. "Looking across the board at commodity price increases and the fact that the planet will be increasingly taxed to produce food commodities, they're planning accordingly."

Mars has been championing cocoa research for the past 20 years, which includes work with the USDA to improve breeding and reduce the threat of pests and disease. But until today's announcement, the company has been focusing more on proving the purported health benefits of chocolate. The company has been promoting cocoa-based flavanols, antioxidants that may reduce bad cholesterol and improve blood circulation.

This health spin continues to pay dividends, as healthy heart benefits of dark chocolate have particularly resonated with older consumers, Morris said.

"It provides a health halo to a product that's otherwise considered unhealthy," he said.

The scientists expect it will take about a year to generate cocoa's raw DNA. The cocoa genome consists of about 500 million base pairs, whereas the human genome is made up of 3 billion base pairs.

Then it's up to three IBM scientists to analyze this data and look for patterns.

"That's where the fun begins," said Ajay Royyuru, senior manager of IBM's Computational Biology Center. "You have the sequence and you start asking what you can learn from the genome and you can get answers to these questions."

Once scientists identify the useful genes, they'll be able to accelerate the breeding process.

"You don't have to wait an entire crop cycle to find out if you selected the right plant or not," Royyuru said.

That'll be the key to healthier, stronger cocoa crops with higher yields. They'll be able to absorb water and nutrients more efficiently, and resist pests and disease.

"We'll have the full toolbox to use as opposed to the pocket full of tools we have now," Shapiro said.

And chocolate lovers will have the powers of science on their side.

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