Mars Inc, IBM and USDA map genome for cocoa plant

NEW YORK Wed Sep 15, 2010 1:00am EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Candy maker Mars Inc., computer company IBM Corp. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have mapped the cacao genome in an effort to improve cocoa crop quality and sustain the world's supply of the key ingredient for chocolate.

The companies and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) on Wednesday released the preliminary genome sequence for the cacao tree, which produces cocoa beans used to make chocolate.

The particular cultivar that was sequenced -- Matina 1-6 -- forms the basis of 99 percent of the world's cocoa, and is a promising first step in advancing farmers' ability to plant more robust, higher yielding and drought and disease-resistant trees.

"Genome sequencing helps eliminate much of the guess-work of traditional crop cultivation," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, Ph.D., global staff officer of plant science and research at Mars, Incorporated.

"This effort, which will allow fast and accurate traditional breeding, is about applying the best of what science has to offer in taking an under-served crop and under-served population and giving them both the chance to flourish," he said.

The results of this collaborative project -- delivered three years early due to Mars' scientific leadership, advances in genome technology and constant real-time collaboration -- marks a significant scientific milestone that is already starting to benefit millions of farmers, particularly in West Africa, where more than 70 percent of the world's cocoa crop is produced.

"The collaboration with Mars and the USDA-ARS leverages more than a decade of IBM Research's experience in computational biology, as well as the power of the Blue Gene supercomputer," said Ajay Royyuru, senior manager, IBM Computational Biology Center.

"By assembling the sequence fragments into the complete genome sequence and developing a detailed genetic map, we can help maximize the potential yield and income for cocoa farmers and catalyze future research and endeavors involving the cacao tree."

The results of the research will be made available to the public with permanent access via the Cacao Genome Database www.cacaogenomedb.org.

(Reporting by Chris Kelly; Editing by David Gregorio)

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