chocolate gene editing

Scientists are modifying the genes of cacao plant seedlings using the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR to enable them to be both disease resistant and able to grow in varying elevations –which will be key to their survival.

If your new year’s resolution was to eat less chocolate, you might want to think again as the global commodity is set to become extinct as early as 2050. Scientists predict that rising temperatures and moisture loss will significantly affect farming in the Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia, the three leading countries in producing cacao, the basic ingredient in chocolate.

However, chocolate lovers need not worry just yet. Business Insider reported on Sunday that Scientists at the University of California Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute and Mars confectionary company have teamed up to create cacao plants that can survive warmer, drier conditions in an attempt to save the precious cacao seeds that provide a livelihood to over 6.5 million farmers.

“We’re trying to go all in here,” Barry Parkin, Mars’ chief sustainability officer, told Business Insider. “There are obviously commitments the world is leaning into but, frankly, we don’t think we’re getting there fast enough collectively.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported in 2016 that Cacao trees need high humidity, abundant rain, nitrogen-rich soil and steady temperatures and can only grow in a narrow strip within 20 degrees north and south of the equator.

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These same areas are under threat from rising temperatures which draw more water from the surrounding plants and soil in a process called evapotranspiration.  It’s unlikely that there will be sufficient rainfall to replace this lost moisture and therein lies the problem for the cacao seeds – the reduced moisture means that the already limited suitable cacao cultivation areas are pushed further uphill.

Under the watchful eye of Myeong-Je Cho, Director of plant genomics at the Innovative Genomics Institute,  scientists are modifying the genes of cacao plant seedlings using the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR to enable them to be both disease resistant and able to grow in varying elevations –which will be key to their survival. 

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In a comment to ABC News, Cho remarked “Cacao transformation is really difficult compared to other crops,” he says. “But eventually, I think we can make it. We had problems with corn and wheat and now it’s very easy.”

The partnership with the Innovative Genomics Institute forms part of the Mars’s companies $1 billion effort called ‘Sustainability in a Generation’, which aims to reduce the carbon footprint of its supply chain and business by more than 60% by 2050. This isn’t their first venture into genomics as in 2008, Mars launched the Cacao Genome Project, an effort to publicly release the sequence of the cacao gene so breeders could “begin identifying traits of climate change adaptability, enhanced yield, and efficiency in water and nutrient use.” While the sequenced genotype (Matina 1-6) is a preliminary release, it already covers 92% of the genome.