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IBM to unravel the secrets of chocolate

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The United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Mars and IBM are combining their scientific resources to sequence and analyse the entire cocoa genome. Sequencing the cocoa genome is a significant scientific step that will allow more directed breeding of cocoa plants and perhaps even enhance the quality of cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate.

The collaboration will enable farmers to plant better quality cocoa and, more importantly, help create healthier, stronger cocoa crops with higher yields, pest and disease resistance, and increased water and nutrient use efficiency.
These crops will help protect an important social, economic and environmental driver in Africa, where 70% of the world’s cocoa is produced. Additionally, the research results will be freely available to anyone through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA), which supports agricultural innovation for both humanitarian and small-scale commercial purposes.
“Sequencing the genomes of agriculture crops is a critical step if we want to better understand and improve a crop,” says Judy St John, USDA-ARS deputy administrator for Crop Production and Protection.
Genome sequencing can help eliminate much of the guess-work of traditional breeding. Once the sequencing is complete, scientists and farmers will be able to better identify the specific genetic traits that allow cocoa plants to produce higher yields and resist drought or pests. Then, cocoa breeders can grow plants with these desirable traits to produce unique, new lines of cocoa plants using conventional breeding techniques.
“As the global leader in cocoa science, Mars saw the potential this research holds to help accelerate what farmers have been doing since the beginning of time with traditional breeding, ultimately improving cocoa trees, yielding higher quality cocoa and increasing income for farmers,” says Howard-Yana Shapiro PhD, global director of plant science for Mars.
The collaborating group anticipates that it will take about five years to complete the entire sequencing, assembly, annotation and study of the cocoa genome. Scientists from USDA-ARS and Mars will conduct various aspects of the project at the USDA-ARS facility in Miami.
Researchers at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, will use their computational biology technology and expertise to develop a detailed genetic map and assemble and study the cocoa genome.
“This collaboration is an opportunity for us to apply our computational biology and supercomputing expertise to improving an economically important agricultural crop,” says Dr Mark Dean, IBM Fellow and vice-president: Technical Strategy and Global Operations at IBM Research.
“And, because 70% of the world’s cocoa is produced in Africa, this work is a key step forward in IBM’s sustained commitment to, and investment in, growth and development in Africa. We look forward to helping the agricultural community there, and in other emerging markets, maximize the potential yield and viability of this important crop.”
Cocoa has been the subject of little agricultural research compared to other major crops such as corn, wheat and rice. And while cocoa is not grown in the US, for every dollar of cocoa imported, between $1.00 and $2.00 of domestic agricultural products are used in the manufacture of chocolate products.