Today, Mars, Inc., the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and IBM released the preliminary findings of their breakthrough cacao genome sequence and made it available in the public domain. This is the result of a joint research endeavor to improve the cocoa growing process and represents a successful private/public partnership for the benefit of the world’s cocoa farmers as well as a more sustainable world cocoa supply.
The preliminary sequencing of the cacao genome is a promising first step in advancing farmers’ ability to plant more robust, higher-yielding, and drought and disease-resistant trees. The results of the research will be made available to the public with permanent access via the Cacao Genome Database (www.cacaogenomedb.org) to ensure that the data remains perpetually open without patent as well as to allow scientists to begin applying the findings immediately to crop cultivation efforts.
With approximately 6.5 million farmers depending on cocoa for their livelihoods -- most of them coming from small, family-run farms -- cocoa is a crucial crop for their survival and the economies of their nations. However, cocoa crops have always been plagued by serious global losses from pests and diseases, and, to date, there has been very little investment in scientific research to improve the cacao tree.
“As the global leader in cocoa science, we understand the importance of not only investing in this research, but making it publicly available for all to benefit,” says Howard-Yana Shapiro, Ph.D., global head of plant science and research for Mars. “As a private company, Mars is in a unique position to drive and fund fundamental science that will support its long term focus and vision. Although it may not benefit the bottom line in the short term, in the long run, it will ensure mutually beneficial results for the company, cocoa farmers and tree crop production in key regions of the world.”
Decades of Mars research has led to major innovations in the areas of sustainable cocoa farming technology. The company’s latest partnership -- blending Mars’ cocoa expertise, USDA-ARS’ extensive experience with other major crops and IBM’s technology -- is an example of the role business can play in addressing challenging global issues.
The results of this uniquely collaborative project -- which were delivered three years early due to Mars’ scientific leadership, advances in genome technology and constant real-time collaboration with key partners -- mark a significant scientific milestone that is already starting to benefit millions of farmers, particularly in West Africa where more than 70% of the world’s cocoa crop is produced. By making the results publicly available, scientists will have access to key learnings to advance plant science, while plant breeders and farmers around the world will be able to develop cacao trees that are more sustainable, and can better fend off the environmental assaults that inflict $700 to $800 million in damages to farmers’ crops each year.
“Genome sequencing helps eliminate much of the guess-work of traditional crop cultivation,” Shapiro notes. “Cocoa is what some researchers describe as an ‘orphan crop,’ because it has been the subject of little agricultural research compared to corn, wheat and rice. This effort, which will allow fast and accurate traditional breeding, is about applying the best of what science has to offer in taking an under-served crop and under-served population and giving them both the chance to flourish.”
"The collaboration with Mars and the USDA-ARS leverages more than a decade of IBM Research's experience in computational biology, as well as the power of the Blue Gene supercomputer," adds Ajay Royyuru, senior manager, IBM Computational Biology Center. “By assembling the sequence fragments into the complete genome sequence and developing a detailed genetic map, we can help maximize the potential yield and income for cocoa farmers and catalyze future research and endeavors involving the cacao tree."
Mars was the primary funder of the project, investing millions into the research. Other partners in addition to IBM, the USDA-ARS Subtropical Horticulture Research Station in Miami and the Jamie Whitten Research Center in Stoneville, Miss., include: Clemson University Genomics Institute; Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture at the University of California-Davis; National Center for Genome Resources; Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University; HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology; and Washington State University.
Moving forward, the collaboration will continue to analyze and characterize the cocoa genome in preparation for submission to peer-reviewed publications. “The talent and dedication brought together through this partnership is unmatched,” Shapiro concludes. “Our work is not over, however -- we have a shared responsibility to continue our research and release new information to the public as we continue on this path of discovery.”