WASHINGTON Now that scientists have figured out how to sequence the human genome for better health, what's next?
Chocolate, of course.
Mars Inc., the candy giant, plans to announce today that it is teaming up with IBM Corp. and U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers in Florida to analyze the entire genome of cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate.
The idea behind the five-year, $10 million-plus project, researchers say, is to make healthier, stronger and more productive cocoa trees and, in turn, ensure the world has plenty of chocolate in the future.
"We want to have a stable supply long into our future and this is key to that," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, director of plant science for Mars.
Most of the work will be done at USDA-Agricultural Research Service labs in Miami.
Genomic manipulation of crops is not new. Big biotech companies already do it to make stronger corn, wheat and other crops despite critics' protests about potential monstrous effects from what they call "frankenfoods."
This marks the first time bioengineering has been used to help ensure the world's chocolate supply, though.
Researchers say genomic sequencing will help farmers eliminate the guesswork of breeding and growing cocoa plants. That could lead to trees that produce higher yields and are more resistant to droughts or pests and also perhaps result in better-tasting chocolate.
An estimated 6.5 million small family farmers in mainly poor countries grow most of the world's cocoa. About 70 percent of it comes from Africa.
Unlocking the cocoa genome Mars plans to make its results publicly available for free will give those farmers the benefits of modern science that would otherwise be unattainable, Shapiro said.
The USDA is involved because U.S. farmers also could benefit. For every $1 that Mars spends on foreign cocoa, it spends $1-$2 on domestic products such as peanuts, oil and milk that go into goodies like M&M's and Snickers bars.
"This is a very important crop at the beginning of a very long chain," said IBM researcher Isidore Rigoutsos, who has spent the last decade on genomic projects to try and cure cancer, herpes and other diseases.
Calling himself "a dedicated chocolate consumer," Rigoutsos acknowledged he has a vested interest in the project.
But, he added, so do many others - and not just chocoholics.
"A lot of people make a living" off of cocoa, he said.