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The Blog of Drug Discovery News

Unwrapping the chocolate genome project

As ddn Senior Editor David Hutton’s post today shows us, genomics doesn’t all have to be deadly (or even healthily) serious…

If Willy Wonka had been a scientist, you can bet he’d have been on board with efforts to crack the chocolate genome.

As it is, chocolatiers Mars and Hershey have had their eyes on a different kind of Golden Ticket, spending millions to crack the code to unlock the secrets for better sweets.

The race pits two factions of scientists who are working hard to analyze the chocolate genome, the genetic code behind the cocoa tree, which they hope could one day make candy bars taste better, cost less, and maybe come guilt free.

Mars, the maker of such tasty confections as Milky Way, M&Ms and Snickers, dedicated $10 million to a chocolate genome project two year ago. Teaming up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and tech giant IBM, the confectioner announced earlier this month that it had cracked more than 92 percent of the genome. Their work is available for free at the Cacao Genome Database, a clearinghouse set up by Mars to aid chocolate research.

The Mars team has made available the draft genome that is a rough physical map of the cacao tree’s 10 chromosomes. Roughly 400 million “letters” of code have been arranged into chunks of about 150,000 letters each. This rough map will allow scientists to search for genes associated with particular traits, according to Juan Carlos Motamayor, chief cacao scientist for Mars. The researchers have already figured out where some genes of interest reside, but they aren’t making that information available yet, he tells U.S. News & World Report

“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, told the New York Times.

Rival Hershey, the name behind popular candies like Reese’s and Kit Kat, helped fund a similar effort by the French government and Pennsylvania State University. This faction is waiting to release its findings in an upcoming scientific paper.

The question is: Can all of this effort by scientists lead to better tasting chocolate or increase cocoa’s natural production of flavonoids, which studies show may be good for your body?

According to Mark Guiltinan, a plant molecular biologist at Pennsylvania State University and leader of one of the rival efforts, that just might be the end result, but it hasn’t been the driving force behind the projects.

The point of the research, according to scientists, isn’t to create a “super candy bar,” but rather to improve and accelerate selective breeding, resulting in plants that yield more cocoa beans are more resistant to drought and disease.

Researchers also hope 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.

Armed 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.

Guiltinan tells the Philadelphia Inquirer that chocolate, he said, originates in the poorest countries of the world, mostly from small farmers in the tropics. The cacao plants that produce the cherished cocoa beans are vulnerable to disease and drought – much of Brazil’s cacao was recently destroyed by a fungus, for example.

According to Mars, farmers suffer $700 million to $800 million worth of damage every year. In its website, Mars writes that this milestone in the project was achieved three years early and marks a significant scientific landmark that is already beginning to benefit millions of farmers, especially in West Africa. Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa production comes from West Africa.

The project isn’t a novel idea, with genetic sequencing already having been used to improve breeding for corn, soybeans, and other major crops, he said.

Still, the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is whether the chocolates will taste better. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about.

Well, yes and no.

Actually, scientists say that it’s possible that better-tasting chocolate may be a part of the end result. The flavor actually comes not from the growing, but from a process of fermentation, which happens off the plants where the beans are subjected to bacteria yeasts and molds.

That breaks down the starches and proteins in the beans, creating lots of smaller compounds that, after roasting, make chocolate taste chocolaty. Chemical analyses have shown that chocolate can contain the same compounds that impart flavor and scents to fruits, flowers, sherry, vinegar, butter, almonds, caramel, nutmeg, and other spices – and, in some cases, Swiss and blue cheese.

The chocolate genome race actually has been underway for more than a decade.

Guiltinan told the Inquirer that his chocolate genome project started in the late 1990s when he and other scientists got grant money from a consortium of chocolate companies, including Hershey. But around the same time, Mars Inc. and the Agriculture Department together decided to launch their own genome project.

Fortunately, the research teams targeted different varieties of the cacao plant. The Mars people sequenced a cutting from a variety called Forastero, which they say is the progenitor of most chocolate on the market today.

Guiltinan’s effort chose a sample of an heirloom variety called Criollo, which he says is closely related to the original chocolate that the Mayans and Aztecs consumed as a hot drink laced with peppers.

Which brings us back to our fictitious chocolatier of film and literature.

Watching from the sidelines, Willy Wonka has to be excited by the prospects of genetically-enhanced cacao trees. On second thought, he’s probably had a team of Oompa-Loompas working on this for years behind the gates of his mysterious factory.

October 27, 2010 - Posted by | Academia & Non-Profit, Announcements and Events, Corporate, Government, Labwork & Science | , , , ,


  1. While this post was mostly in lighthearted fun, given how much genomics plays into pharma and biotech now (and how much press the Human Genome Project got), it does make me wonder if we’ll see not only flavinoid-related work as Dave suggests in his post, but maybe more than that.

    Perhaps chocolates that deliver vaccines? Probiotics? Highly bioavailable vitamins? Other things?

    Part of me thinks that’s silly, but then again, if there’s a market for it, maybe well have things like tetanus truffles.

    Comment by Jeffrey Bouley, ddn Managing Editor | October 27, 2010 | Reply

  2. Chocolate drug delivery? Sign me up!

    Comment by Amy Swinderman, ddn Chief Editor | October 28, 2010 | Reply

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