Genetic decoding may lead to better chocolate

    Scientists at Penn State University have decoded the genes of cocoa trees and now are able to isolate which genes are most needed for flavor, health and aroma.

    Chocolate lovers, beware. Your favorite treat may get even better.

    Scientists at Penn State University have decoded the genes of cocoa trees and now are able to isolate which genes are most needed for flavor, health and aroma.

    The researchers hope their findings will be used by farmers to create what they call a “super plant” within three to five years. Farmers will be able to cross-pollinate plants with the best genetic makeup.

    Researcher Mark Guiltinan said disease kills 40 percent of the cocoa crop every year, but the demand for savory chocolate treats is on the rise.

    “Our results are going to help accelerate plant breeding while maintaining the flavors to make sure we don’t loose the good flavor of the chocolate that we already have,” he said.

    The specific cocoa studied is called Criollo, one of the oldest domesticated trees in Central America. But researchers said the results can be duplicated for all types of cocoa trees.

    Siela Maximova, another one of the Penn State researchers, said  this breakthrough is good news for consumers. But it’s even better for the farmers who are often poor and who don’t have the technology to protect the trees from disease.

    “In the best scenario, you will have disease resistance combined with high flavor and other quality traits to produce the super trees,” she said. “The elite varieties will be incorporated into production and distributed to the farmers.”

    One of the leading reasons for the research was to find a way to protect the farmer and boost the economy of cocoa-producing areas.

    “If we can improve the productivity of cocoa, it’s going to help those cocoa farmers, it’s going to help those poor countries and improve their economic status, improve their well-being, in addition to helping the chocolate companies to stabilize the supply of chocolate,” Guiltinan said.

    Cocoa trees most often die from aggressive fungal diseases.

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