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Trio sweeten up HPC

The United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Mars, Incorporated, and IBM are combining their scientific resources to sequence and analyse the entire cocoa genome. 

Sequencing the cocoa genome is a significant scientific step that will allow more directed breeding of cocoa plants and perhaps even enhance the quality of cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate.  The collaboration will enable farmers to plant better quality cocoa and, more importantly, help create healthier, stronger cocoa crops with higher yields, pest and disease resistance, and increased water and nutrient use efficiency. Additionally, the research results will be freely available to anyone through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA), which supports agricultural innovation for both humanitarian and small-scale commercial purposes.

‘Sequencing the genomes of agriculture crops is a critical step if we want to better understand and improve a crop,’ said Judy St. John, USDA-ARS Deputy Administrator for Crop Production and Protection. Genome sequencing can help eliminate much of the guess-work of traditional breeding. Once the sequencing is complete, scientists and farmers will be able to better identify the specific genetic traits that allow cocoa plants to produce higher yields and resist drought or pests. Then, cocoa breeders can grow plants with these desirable traits to produce unique, new lines of cocoa plants using conventional breeding techniques.

The collaborating group anticipates that it will take approximately five years to complete the entire sequencing, assembly, annotation and study of the cocoa genome. Scientists from USDA-ARS and Mars will conduct various aspects of the project at the USDA-ARS facility in Miami.  Researchers at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, will use their computational biology technology and expertise to develop a detailed genetic map and assemble and study the cocoa genome.

Cocoa has been the subject of little agricultural research compared to other major crops such as corn, wheat and rice. And while cocoa is not grown in the US, for every dollar of cocoa imported, between one and two dollars of domestic agricultural products are used in the manufacture of chocolate products.

Mars and USDA-ARS have worked together during the past 10 years on research projects related to improving traditional methods of cocoa breeding and reducing the threat of pest and disease to the crop around the world. Mars and IBM also worked together on projects in the past, but this is the first project in which all three experts are collaborating to yield benefits for the crop, the farmer and the consumer for many years to come. Mars, the world’s largest chocolate company, is financially backing and coordinating this project. 

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