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

By Jia Lynn Yang
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 12:04 AM

Scientists have painstakingly mapped the DNA of human beings, corn, turkeys - and now chocolate.

A group of researchers led by McLean candy company Mars is nearly done sequencing the genome of the cacao tree, which produces the seeds used to make cocoa. The information will speed up the process for creating a stronger tree that is more resistant to disease and easier to grow for millions of farmers.

And a better tree, they hope, means more chocolate for everyone for years to come.

Rather than keep the delicious secrets to itself, the company behind M&M's and Snickers has decided to share the information with the world.

"The information is so rich and so accurate we felt there was no reason to hold back," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, a Santa-bearded chocolate scientist whose technical title is global staff officer of plant science and research at Mars.

The goal of the genome project is not to genetically engineer chocolate. Rather it's to improve the traditional method of breeding trees, a laborious, trial-and-error process in which researchers try to isolate the sweetest traits and replicate them. That can take as long as 15 years to complete.

With a map of the cacao tree's genetic makeup, scientists could cut that process down to two or three years. For instance, they could extract the DNA of a young tree and see whether it has the right genes for resisting diseases instead of waiting years for the tree to mature.

But enough about the science. Bottom line: Will the new information result in better-tasting chocolate?

Perhaps, Shapiro said. He noted that some discerning eaters have complained that the quality of cocoa has fallen in recent years, but no one knows whether that is because of soil, weather or genetics.

At least one of the keys to flavor is the fatty acid content of the cocoa. "Now finally, we have insight on how to stabilize it and raise it over time," Shapiro said.

The world's cocoa supply is grown mostly by small farmers because the process is so laborious.

It begins with picking a pod off a cacao tree. The farmer then splits open the pod and scrapes the seeds out. Then the beans are fermented for a number of days, which is when they get their tasty chocolate flavor. Lastly the beans have to be dried.

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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