The Chocolate Life

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Scientists say they have determined the complete DNA sequence of the tree that produces cocoa beans, an accomplishment that is expected to vastly accelerate efforts to assure a stable supply of chocolate and to make it better-tasting and healthier.But there are two separate groups vying for credit in what some might consider the research arm of a chocolate factory war.

The candy maker Mars is expected to announce on Wednesday that a project it financed has essentially completed the raw sequence of the genome of the cacao tree, and that it would make the data freely available to researchers.

The announcement upstages a consortium involving French government laboratories and Pennsylvania State University that is backed in part by a competitor of Mars, Hershey. This group says it has also completed the sequence, but cannot discuss it until its paper analyzing the genome is published in a scientific journal.

The rivalry between the two big chocolate companies’ projects in some ways mirrors what occurred in the race to sequence the human genome, between Celera Genomics and the publicly financed Human Genome Project. That battle was officially declared a tie.

Still, scientists in both groups say that cocoa farmers, candy companies and chocolate lovers will benefit from having two sequences, of different varieties of cacao, that can be compared.

“This will help guarantee a sustainable future for cocoa for the farmers, the consumers and Mars Inc.,” Howard-Yana Shapiro, the head of plant research at Mars, said in an interview.

Having the DNA information, he said, could help in breeding trees that have higher yields and are more resistant to diseases. The cocoa crop in Brazil, for instance, was decimated some years ago by a fungal disease called witches’ broom.

The full text of the article on NYTimes.com is here.

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Hi everyone, I'm kinda new here, been reading and lurking in the background for a few weeks. I'm a baker, mostly bread, in northern California, and learning to work with chocolate. Thank you for the informative conversations.

When I read the WashPost's article about this yesterday my first thought was that neither Mars nor Hershey are philanthropic organizations or scientific think tanks that thrive on free inquiry alone. Does the 10mill Mars put toward this effort in any way translate to their "ownership" of the sequenced genes? Just because it is sharing its preliminary results now doesn't mean there won't be a price to pay in order to use this information later.
Whoops, originally posted in the wrong spot - couldn't delete it. sorry for duplicate.

It does not. There is no genetic ownership component of this effort. It's being driven, in large part, by a realization that the status of cacao husbandry is at about the same place maize was in the early 1900's, and unless action is taken, there is a great likelihood that demand will outstrip supply, especially in light of disease, pest, and yield pressures.

Witches broom 2 decades ago was a warning shot across the bow highlighting just how fragile the crop can be. There are a dozen other witches broom type things knocking at the door today. Farmers are not wanting their kids to farm because of a variety of reasons. If farmers no longer farm, they find another livelihood and we no longer eat chocolate.

I understand your distrust of corporate america. it's usually well founded.

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