A map of a particularly delicious variety of cacao plant’s DNA could lead to more abundant, high-quality chocolate. While this news sounds scrumptious to chocolate lovers, the Cacao Genome Database noted it could be an even sweeter treat to the ears of the world’s 6.5 million cacao farmers in South America, Africa and Asia.
In 2010, geneticists deciphered a preliminary version of the molecular code of a variety of cacao plant (Theobroma cacao), known as Matina. Farmers around the world commonly plant Matina, or similar varieties, because of its excellent flavor.
Now, scientists working for candy-maker Mars Incorporated, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, IBM and several universities have finished the entire sequence. A group of those geneticists identified a particular set of genes in Matina that code for its greenish pod color, which relates to the quality of the beans-to-be, and published their results in Genome Biology. Better beans means better chocolate.
The genetic marker for quality cacao could speed up efforts to breed better chocolate beans. For example, in Ecuador, farmers plant a very high yielding red-podded variety of cacao. However, this variety isn’t as tasty as Matina. Efforts to cross-breed the Ecuadorian variety with Matina have been slow, expensive and labor intensive, yet met with little success.
With the identification of the genetic marker for Matina’s scrumptious seed pods, plant breeders can now screen seedlings DNA for the desired trait. Before, breeders needed years to grow a plant to maturity before they knew if they had hit a pod payoff.
IMAGE: Cacao beans and pod (Muninus, Wikimedia Commons)