London, June 26 : A project called, the Chocolate Genome Project, aimed to decode the genetic structure of the cocoa tree, has been launched by chocolate company Mars, with the aim of improving cocoa production.
The project, to be executed in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture and IT firm IBM, may aid in improving breeding programmes.
This knowledge of cocoa tree's DNA may prove to be beneficial as crop production would become more resistant to pests, diseases, and water shortages related to warming climate.
Mars' global director of plant science, Howard-Yana Shapiro, said that the discovery would turn out to be most useful to African farmers, as they were responsible for nearly two-thirds of world cocoa production.
The research would "ultimately improve cocoa trees, yield higher quality cocoa and increase income for farmers," BBC quoted him, as saying.
However, he did not reveal much on how this research is linked to genetically modified chocolate.
"Researchers worldwide will have access to our work, the cocoa genome. What they do with it, I can't control," he explained.
While it may take another five years to sequence, assemble, annotate and analyse the cocoa genome, the details at various stages would be constantly provided through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA). The information on DNA sequence would be available to the public for free and no information will be patented.
This move was welcomed by Dr Jane Rodgers, of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. He said: "This kind of approach is the norm," she said. "The results of the project will underpin all research in the field and stimulate its application to the greater benefit of all."
According to Dr John Orchard, of the Natural Resources Institute in Kent, it was required that hardier varieties of the plant are developed irrespective of climate change.
"The cocoa crop is particularly vulnerable to disease. Sixty percent of the Brazilian harvest was wiped out by a disease called witches recently and this kind of impact is not uncommon," he said.
The research is similar to the sequencing of the rice genome five years ago.
That project has already led to "huge strides" in the basic understanding of the food crop, according to Dr Hugh Jones of the Institute of Arable Crop Research in Harpenden in Hertfordshire.
"This study should lead to similar benefits," he said.
In fact, project workers at IBM's TJ Watson Research Centre in New York will be using their experience of computational biology for making a detailed genetic map of cocoa.