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Government-Industry-Academic Team Sequences Cacao Genome

Cocoa beans in a cacao pod (Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

Cocoa beans in a cacao pod (Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

Researchers from government, industry, and academia announced early results of a project that sequenced the genome of the cacao tree, which grows in the tropics and produces crops that are processed into cocoa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that released the findings, says they will help sustain the supply of high-quality cocoa to the $17 billion U.S. chocolate industry and protect the livelihoods of small farmers around the world.

Seed pods from the Theobroma cacao tree are processed into cocoa beans that are the source of cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate. But fungal diseases can destroy seed-bearing pods and wipe out up to 80 percent of the crop, causing an estimated $700 million in losses each year.

Sequencing cacao’s genome, says USDA, will help researchers develop an overall picture of the plant’s genetic makeup, uncover the relationships between genes and traits, and broaden scientific understanding of how the interplay of genetics and the environment determines a plant’s health and viability.

USDA adds that this research can also help the economies of tree-growing regions, by breeding trees better equipped to resist the droughts, diseases and pests that threaten crops from this tree. Hundreds of thousands of small farmers and landholders throughout the tropics depend on cacao for their livelihoods. An estimated 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in West Africa.

Collaborating on the project were staff from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service; Mars, Inc., of McLean, Virginia., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of chocolate-related products; scientists at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, New York; and researchers from the Clemson University Genomics Institute, the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Washington State University, Indiana University, the National Center for Genome Resources, and PIPRA (Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture) at the University of California-Davis.

The genome sequence will be released into the public domain, with access to these data online at the Cacao Genome Database prior to formal peer-reviewed publication.

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