by Shara Rutberg
Witches' broom, frosty pod rot and black pod might sound straight out of Harry Potter. Unfortunately, they're very real diseases that could wipe out the world's supply of chocolate. In lieu of magic, scientists — and a chocolate company owner with terrific taste buds — are working to smite the blights with two cutting edge projects.
The global cocoa industry has lost an estimated $700 million annually over the past 15 years due to fungal diseases according to Alfredo Flores, public affairs specialists with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Since 1999, the ARS has partnered with McLean, Va.-based Mars Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of chocolate-related products, to apply modern molecular genetic techniques to cocoa production in the ARS Miami research facility. In June, they announced a new collaboration with IBM, with the goal of sequencing the entire cacao genome using its Blue Gene supercomputer.
Scientists hope mapping the gene will allow future farmers to grow more disease-resistant plants, says ARS plant geneticist and project leader Ray Schnell. Heartier plants could increase farmers' incomes, and "could potentially prevent the spread of Witches' Broom from South America to the rest of the world's cacao producing regions. Moreover, resistant cacao cultivars may preclude the need for agricultural chemicals that can have harmful effects on the environment," according to the Mars company Web site.
Brian Irish, a horticulturist/geneticist, is leading USDA cacao research at the organization's Tropical Agricultural Research Station in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. There, he oversees an ambitious project to identify and analyze the DNA fingerprint of each strain of cacao in a 70-year-old collection of plants from around the world. By cataloging the cacao in a "cocoa bank," Irish hopes to better understand the unique characteristics of each strain and to add types, such as ancient strains, that might be missing from the collection.
Irish will be aided by the taste buds of Timothy Moley, owner of Boulder, Colo.-based Chocolove, whose company also helps fund the project. Moley is part of an expert panel that will help expand the profiles of each strain of cacao by identifying the flavor nuances that distinguish each type. "The core of everything I've done has been about taste," says Moley, who founded Chocolove 13 years ago. He's also worked as a tea taster and as a spice taster and is a level two sommelier. "Basically, I've made my living tasting things for almost 30 years," he says.
Irish ships samples to Moley, who enjoys — then evaluates each. Flavors range from "classic baked brownie and Oreo cookie and hot chocolate flavors to hints of toasted, roasted or burnt flavors," says Moley. "There's also varying degrees of acidity and bitterness as well as a range of nutty flavors, like coconuts, or raw or roasted peanuts. Leafy aromas of flavors like tea and tobacco can also be present." Hopefully, the work being done in Miami and Puerto Rico will help ensure a sweet future for cacao and the people who love it, and that the plants' genetic secrets remain safe from brooms and rots.