NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture, IBM, and candy maker Mars are collaborating to sequence the cocoa genome, Mars announced today.
The project is expected to take about five years, with researchers at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Mars carrying out some sequencing and related research at a USDA-ARS facility in Miami. For their part, collaborators at IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, plan to contribute the computing power necessary for assembling and analyzing the sequence data.
Unlike other crop plants such as wheat, rice, or corn, relatively little genetic research has been done on cocoa plants, which provide the main ingredient in chocolate. Over the past decade or so, collaborations between Mars and the USDA-ARS have focused instead on traditional cocoa breeding projects.
The USDA has also collaborated with other groups in the past, such as the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, the University of Reading, and other groups to better understand cocoa genetics. Previous work has included efforts to develop high-density linkage maps of cocoa genes and compile information on quantitative trait loci.
The cocoa genome project is intended to facilitate the development of cocoa plants with higher yield, better pest and disease resistance, and other desirable traits. The boost to traditional plant breeding, in turn, is expected to help breeders come up with new types of cocoa specialized to certain environments and better quality cocoa overall.
“Once its genome is sequenced, it has the potential to provide positive social, economic, and environmental impact for the more than 6.5 million small family cocoa farmers around the world,” Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture Executive Director Alan Bennett said in a statement. Some 70 percent of the world’s cocoa supply originates in Africa.
Mars is providing $10 million in financial backing for the sequencing project. The sequence information will be made freely available as it is obtained through the PIPRA web site.