IBM, the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and Mars have announced that they are combining their scientific resources
to sequence and analyze the entire cocoa genome. The sequencing is a significant scientific step that will allow more directed breeding of cocoa plants and could enhance the quality of cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate. Once completed, the research results will be released into the public domain.
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. Farmers will be able to plant better quality cocoa and, more importantly, healthier, stronger cocoa crops with higher yields, pest and disease resistance, and increased water and nutrient use efficiency.
These stronger crops will help protect an important social, economic and environmental driver in Africa, where 70 percent 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,” said Judy St. John, USDA-ARS Deputy Administrator for Crop Production and Protection, based in Beltsville, MD.
“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,” said Howard-Yana Shapiro, Ph.D., global director of plant science for Mars.
The collaborating group anticipates that it will take approximately five years to complete the entire sequencing, assembly, annotation and study of the cocoa genome. Researchers at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, will use their computational biology expertise and Blue Gene supercomputer to develop a detailed genetic map and assemble and study the cocoa genome. Scientists from USDA-ARS and Mars will conduct various aspects of the project at the USDA-ARS facility in Miami. “This collaboration is an opportunity for us to apply our computational biology and supercomputing expertise to improving an economically important agricultural crop,” said Dr. Mark Dean, IBM Fellow and vice president, Technical Strategy and Global Operations, IBM Research. “And because 70 percent 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 U.S., for every dollar of cocoa imported, between one and two dollars of domestic agricultural products are used in the manufacture of chocolate products.
“We are delighted to work with Mars, USDA and IBM to allow free access to the cocoa genome sequence information in real time, while ensuring that the gene sequences will not be patented,” noted Alan Bennett, Executive Director of the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture. “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.”
Mars and USDA-ARS have worked together during the past 10 years on research projects related to improving traditional methods of cocoa breeding and reducing the threat of pest and disease to the crop around the world. Mars and IBM also worked together on projects in the past, but this is the first project in which all three experts are collaborating to yield benefits for the crop, the farmer and the consumer. In addition to the three major partners, Washington State University will assist in developing detailed genetic maps and assembling the sequence fragments into the complete genome sequence. Mars, the world’s largest chocolate company, is financially backing and coordinating the project.