Chocolate shortage? Huntsville scientists work to prevent cacao trees from dying off

In many parts of the world, the tree that produces chocolate is dying off.

Posted: Aug 27, 2019 7:02 PM
Updated: Aug 28, 2019 8:37 AM

We can’t seem to get enough of chocolate. Nearly 7.7 million tons of it was enjoyed around the world last year. However, your favorite confection is in danger of melting away forever.

In many parts of the world, the tree that produces it is dying off. Scientists in Huntsville at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology recently made a major breakthrough, which they hope will save the sweet treat.

At Pizzelle's Confections in Huntsville, they're making people smile and business is good.

“I mean who doesn’t like chocolate?” said Michelle Pennell, the co-owner Pizzelle's Confections.

They go through a lot of chocolate at their Lowe Mill location, slicing off their little piece of the more than $20 billion worth of chocolate sold in the U.S. each year. However, chocolate is in a bitter battle for its very existence.

“We haven’t had really any issues with sourcing our chocolate, but I know that’s a big concern for 'chocolateers,'” said Pennell.

Indeed it is. The chocolate that we enjoy begins with seeds from the cacao tree. It’s native to tropical forests around the world, especially in Central and South America and Africa.

That has always been its Achilles’ heel. It grows only in warm, humid places. It’s also especially susceptible to fungus and disease, frosty pod rot, swollen shoot virus and witches broom.

“Witches broom, yeah, that will then spread rapidly throughout the population of those trees,” said Jeremy Schmutz, a faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha.

Through a grant from the candy maker, Mars Wrigley, Schmutz and his team at HudsonAlpha are saving the cacao tree by mapping its molecular makeup. They’ve created an improved reference genome for cacao.

“And what that is, is determining the DNA sequence, the underlying genetic code of a plant,” said Schmutz.

This represents the very building blocks of the cacao plant. Using these “road maps,” breeders can identify parts of the genome they’d like to see carried over into future generations of plants.

“Here’s a bunch of trees that are susceptible to this pathogen, or here’s a bunch of trees that have a really great agronomic trait or need less fertilizer or produce more cacao," said Schmutz. "It’s easy now to use our existing resources to mine and understand what the molecular basis is for those traits and then be able to put those back into the breeding pipeline again.”

This streamlines the process of “selective breeding," something farmers have been doing for centuries, targeting genetic traits that will ultimately produce healthier cacao trees and tastier chocolate.

“Selecting for the good stuff, you can also select against the bad stuff, thereby making a more robust plant out the other side,” said Schmutz.

That’s something scientists say we have lost in domesticated crop plants. Over time, farmers selected for a specific trait, perhaps at the expense of natural disease resistance. The hope is to bring back plants that need fewer pesticides, fertilizer, and even water, but for all our best efforts, Mother Nature has a nasty habit of mutating diseases that will show up in another form and strike again.

“You don’t just win and you’re done. This is really a continuous process where you’re trying to respond to what’s going on in the environment where you’re growing these trees,” said Schmutz.

Using this new reference genome, researchers will be able to guide crossbreeding efforts more quickly.

“So, we people can continue to raise cacao trees, and we can continue to enjoy the fruits of the cacao tree,” said Schmutz.

That sounds pretty sweet to Michelle Pennell.

“I mean, I think that that’s absolutely amazing. Help the farmers, help the whole chocolate community, basically,” she said.

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