Sweet Science: IBM Teams With Chocolatier to Grow Better Beans

Candy bar maker Mars is working with IBM and the United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) to apply their scientific experience and computing resources to sequence and analyze the entire cocoa genome.

This scientific inquiry is more than a simple effort to produce richer chocolate for candy lovers. The team is hoping to address issues within the cocoa industry, which has been hit with a trio of devastating fungal diseases that have cost growers an estimated US$700 million in losses annually.

Hardier Plants

The research results may enable farmers to plant better quality cocoa and, more importantly, help create healthier, stronger cocoa crops with higher yields, better pest and disease resistance, and increased water and nutrient use efficiency, IBM said.

The trio of researchers don’t plan on producing genetically modified cocoa plants; rather, the idea is to understand the genome to help breeders make better choices as they try to produce more disease-resistant strains through more traditional methods.

“Sequencing the genomes of agriculture crops is a critical step if we want to better understand and improve a crop,” noted Judy St. John, USDA-ARS deputy administrator for crop production and protection.

The group believes it will take five years to complete the entire sequencing, assembly, annotation and study of the cocoa genome.

IBM could use a variety of computing systems for the project, Sara Delekta Galligan, a spokesperson for IBM, told TechNewsWorld. “Supercomputers, grid computing and possibly Blue Gene as well,” she said, noting that IBM has done sequencing work in the past, including work with microbial genomes, the human genome, and mouse genomes.

For the Common Good

“This collaboration is an opportunity for us to apply our computational biology and supercomputing expertise to help improve an economically important agricultural crop,” noted Mark Dean, IBM fellow and vice president of technical strategy and global operations for IBM Research.

“IBM Research is interested in enhancing and supporting growth and development in Africa, where 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced. We look forward to helping the agricultural community in Africa, and in other emerging markets,” he added.

Major crops like corn, wheat and rice have tended to benefit from heavy agricultural research, but cocoa has been largely forgotten.

While Mars, which is funding the effort, could likely patent the cocoa genome, the company is working with the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture to ensure that the gene sequences won’t be patented.

“Once its genome is sequenced, it has the potential to provide positive social, economic and environmental impact for the more than 6.5 million small family cocoa farmers around the world,” noted Alan Bennett, executive director of the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture.

Why the USDA for a Mostly Foreign Crop?

Only a tiny fraction of the world’s cocoa crop is grown in the United States, and while lots of Americans enjoy a little chocolate now and then, why would the USDA-ARS get involved? Mars has the obvious motivation and IBM has the supercomputing horsepower, so what gives with the USDA’s involvement?

“In the late ’90s, the state department was looking for alternatives to narcotic plants, and cocoa was one that had some possibilities, but it was susceptible to diseases. So we started working on that, thinking that if we could improve it and people could make money on it, maybe they would grow it instead of say, cocaine,” Ray Schnell, a research geneticist with the USDA-ARS, told TechNewsWorld.

Mars got involved after the company saw cocoa crops devastated in Brazil in the ’90s, Schnell added.

“If you look at a Mars bar, very little of it is chocolate,” he explained, noting that for every dollar of cocoa that’s imported to the U.S., between one and two dollars of domestic agricultural products are used to make chocolate products.

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