Chocolate isn't an obvious candidate for a food that needs improving. But that hasn't deterred scientists at the candy conglomerate Mars, which recently announced they had nearly completed sequencing the cacao tree's genome. This could mean stronger, more resilient cocoa crops, and — perhaps down the road — better-tasting chocolate. Here's an instant guide to this potentially delicious breakthrough:
What did the Mars scientists do?
They cracked the genetic code for cacao — the plant that produces cocoa beans. Cocoa, of course, is the primary ingredient in chocolate. Cacao has 400 million or so "letters" in its genome, and researchers have identified about 35,000 individual genes (that is, fixed sequences of "letters" that control specific physical traits).
Is the cocoa plant's DNA especially complicated?
Actually, it's not. Researchers recently published the genetic sequence for wheat, which turned out to be five times longer than that of humans. Chocolate's relatively compact code has proved simpler to read than that of many other common crops.
Does chocolate's taste really need to be improved?
Most people probably don't think so, but "some discerning eaters have complained that the quality of cocoa has fallen in recent year" — a decline that could be due to soil, genetics, weather, or other factors.
How can genetic research help?
Industry scientists have suggested that genetic engineering might be one way to reverse this perceived decline in cocoa quality. By tweaking genes, researchers may be able to control and stabilize the fatty acids that give chocolate its signature taste.
Does this benefit anyone but chocolate nerds?
It could mean a bonanza for small farmers in the poor regions of the world where cacao is mostly grown. Cocoa beans are one the ten most traded crops in the world, but cacao is also "notoriously fragile," and tends to be "plagued by pests and disease." The research could also boost the fortunes of some U.S. farmers and food producers: According to the USDA, every dollar of imported cocoa requires "$1 to $2 of domestic agricultural products" before it becomes a consumer foodstuff.