Analysis of Cacao Genome Could Yield Better Chocolate

For thousands of years humans have savored the complex flavors of chocolate. Now,Strawberry with chocolate sauce ( having sequenced and analyzed a certain variety of the cacao tree—the plant that produces the bean from which chocolate is made—humans can appreciate the complex biology behind the confection as well.

An international team that included Professor of Plant Molecular Biology Mark Guiltinan and Associate Professor of Horticulture Siela Maximova sequenced the genome of the ancient Criollo variety of cacao, which generally is considered to produce the world’s finest chocolate. The team also identified a number of gene families within the Criollo tree that may prove to be useful in enhancing the variety’s attributes and protecting it from fungal diseases and insects.

According to Guiltinan, to his knowledge the cacao tree—scientifically termed Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods”—is the first early domesticated tropical tree fruit crop to be sequenced. Cocoa production began in Mesoamerica 3,000 years ago, and the Criollo variety was the first to be domesticated. Today, about 3.7 million tons of cocoa are produced annually worldwide, contributing greatly to the income of small farmers. “We hope our achievement will encourage greater investment in research of the cacao tree and, ultimately, benefit developing countries for which cocoa is of high economic importance,” said Guiltinan.