Crossing the Finish Line for - 12-27-2010, 06:24 PM
Crossing the Finish Line for Cacao’s Genetic Map
By SINDYA N. BHANOO
This year, a team of researchers financed by the candy maker Mars announced that they had, for the first time, completely sequenced the DNA of a cacao tree, which produces the main ingredient in chocolate.
Now, a rival group of scientists, financed in part by the candy maker Hershey, has published its genetic sequence of the cacao tree in the journal Nature Genetics.
“We had it done earlier but wanted to go through the full peer review process before issuing a press release,” said Mark Guiltinan, a horticulturalist at Pennsylvania State University and one of the study’s authors.
He and his colleagues genetically sequenced an ancient Mayan variety of cacao tree that was domesticated about 3,000 years ago.
Their rivals sequenced a slightly different variety of the tree, and published their results in a free, publicly available online database in September.
Though exactly who won the genetic chocolate wars may be up for debate, both groups have said that they want the sequences to aid breeders in creating more disease-resistant chocolate plants.
“Most cocoa farmers are small farmers, and many are very, very poor,” said Dr. Guiltinan “Speeding up the breeding of disease-resistant varieties of cocoa will help them produce more for the same amount of work.”
Cacao is cultivated across the world today, in African, South American, Central American and Asian countries.
The researchers also found genes that influence the production of flavonoids in cacao, which are thought to offer cardiovascular benefits. They isolated the gene that determines the melting point of chocolate as well.
“Cocoa tastes so good because it melts in your mouth at a particular point, but there may be a market to make a higher-melting-point chocolate for countries with different climates,” Dr. Guiltinan said.
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