Why Chocoholics Should Hug the Nearest Geneticist

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Burlap sack filled with organic Ghana cocoa beans, elevated view

The cacao tree, which grows the fruit that turns into chocolate, is one of the oldest cultivated trees on the planet. Over 3,000 years ago, the Mayans domesticated what is thought to be the highest quality variety, Theobroma cacao. Now an international team of researchers has sequenced the tree’s genome, unlocking its vulnerabilities and possibly paving the way to a future of higher yields of the best quality chocolate.

“Fine cocoa production is estimated to be less than 5 percent of the world cocoa production because of low productivity and disease susceptibility,” said Mark Guiltinan, a researcher on the genome project and a professor of plant molecular biology at Penn State. (More Time.com: See the top 10 food trends of 2010)

The group has found hundreds of genes that could be useful to cultivators: genes that help resist disease and pests; genes that increase production of cocoa butter, which leads to higher quality chocolate; and genes that could alter the amount of antioxidants, flavonoids terpenoids, and other compounds that help make some chocolates more healthful than others.

If the trees are bred to include the best possible genetic profile, these discoveries will help impoverished communities improve their yield for market. But the economic benefits could be nothing compared to the health boost.  As Healthland’s Alice Park reported, dark and high quality chocolate is particularly rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants and heart-healthy flavonoids and has been shown in studies to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as lessen the risk of stroke and heart attack. (More Time.com: Cheers! Could Hypoallergenic Wine Be on the Horizon?)

If you’d like to “browse” the genome (you might want to dust off a textbook or two before attempting it) the French agricultural research organization that led the study, CIRAD, has made it available online.

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