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With DNA of chocolate nearly decoded by scientists, could sweeter treats await?

A group of researchers led and funded by McLean-based candy company Mars is nearly done sequencing the genome of the cacao tree, which produces the seeds used to make chocolate.

The cacao plant is especially hard to grow because it is highly vulnerable to pests and disease. According to Mars, farmers suffer $700 million to $800 million worth of damage every year.

More than 70 percent of the world's cocoa supply comes from West Africa, where the biggest source is Cote d'Ivoire, followed by Ghana. Indonesia is the world's third-largest producer.

Brazil used to be one of the top producers of cacao, until a fungus called witches'-broom struck the crop in the late 1980s and devastated the country's industry.

"It was a wake-up call," Shapiro said. "Imagine what would happen if something hit Africa."

The United States does not produce much cocoa, only a small amount in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. But because domestic companies such as Mars and Hershey's rely so much on the ingredient, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been trying to breed a better cacao tree since 1999.

In 2008, Mars, in partnership with IBM and the USDA, began sequencing the cacao genome. Mars committed $10 million to the project and decided to share preliminary results with the public three years ahead of schedule.

During their work sequencing the cocoa genome, researchers learned a few things about the raw makeup of chocolate.

Its DNA is much easier to read compared with other crops, allowing scientists to yield more information about the cacao tree's characteristics, said David Kuhn, a USDA research molecular biologist based in Miami.

So eating too much chocolate may be an indulgence that expands the waist. But, as it turns out, Kuhn said, "it's a very well-behaved genome."

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