Thirty years of research supports cacao farmers, chocolate industry

When trade organizations representing the chocolate industry created an endowment in 1986 to support Penn State research on Theobroma cacao -- the cocoa tree -- the use of biotechnology to improve plants was still in its infancy.

Now, three decades later, the endowment has grown, and along with it the scientific knowledge that is helping to promote economic security for cocoa farmers in developing countries and to ensure a reliable supply of the raw material needed to manufacture one of the world's favorite delicacies.

The 30th anniversary of the Endowed Program in the Molecular Biology of Cocoa -- Penn State's first fully endowed research program -- was celebrated May 31-June 3 on the University Park campus during a symposium titled, "Frontiers in Science and Technology for Cacao Quality, Productivity and Sustainability." About 160 scientists, industry representatives and government officials traveled from 25 countries to hear scientific talks, tour research facilities and share information.

The symposium was sponsored by industry and government partners involved in all dimensions of the cocoa/chocolate value chains. The event featured more than 30 seminars on such topics as domestication, plant immunity, pathogens and microbiomes, adaptation to climate change, and propagation.

Cocoa symposium lab tour

A group of attendees at Penn State's recent cocoa molecular biology symposium tour a lab at the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.

Image: Penn State

The endowment began in 1986 with a $1.5 million contribution from the American Cocoa Research Institute and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. Researchers have leveraged this funding to attract nearly $4.7 million in additional support for cacao science from organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.

"Founders of the endowment had seen the birth of molecular biology and biotechnology during the late 1970s and early '80s, and they had the vision of establishing a research program built on these revolutionary new scientific capabilities," said Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, who has led the cocoa research program since 1996.

"With support from the endowment over the years, our teams at Penn State have worked with collaborators around the world to conduct research on cocoa diseases, quality traits, genome mapping, isolation of genes that confer such things as disease resistance, and clonal propagation," he said. "We've made a lot of progress, but these modern tools of plant science are needed now more than ever to help find solutions to the challenges facing growers today."

Among these challenges are climate change, aging cocoa trees and the threat of plant diseases that reduce production significantly. The combination of flat yields, drought and rising global chocolate demand in recent years has led to cocoa shortages that some analysts have forecast will reach 1 million tons per year by 2020.

Chocolate liquid

An adequate supply of cocoa beans is critical to chocolate manufacturers in Pennsylvania, which is the top chocolate-producing state in the nation.

Image: Letizia Piatti via Flickr

Besides causing economic hardships for smallholder farmers in cocoa-producing countries, such production shortfalls ripple through the supply chain to the United States, the leading importer of cocoa beans, and to Pennsylvania, the top chocolate-producing state in the nation. Not only are Pennsylvania chocolate manufacturers affected by cocoa supply and demand -- the state's large dairy industry supplies as much as 15 percent of its milk for use in chocolate making.

The endowed program's accomplishments are many. Faculty and student researchers have created one of the first genetic maps of cocoa and contributed to the sequencing of the entire cocoa genome; have characterized a large number of genes involved in disease resistance and quality traits such as lipid and flavonoid biosynthesis; and have developed and published several innovative methods for the study of functional genomics in cacao.

The research group also developed a method -- somatic embryogenesis -- that enables the rapid propagation of elite cocoa plants. "One application of this process is in the production of disease-free plants, which is becoming more important for growers because of cocoa swollen shoot virus, a disease that severely limits production, particularly in Africa," said research program co-director Siela Maximova, senior scientist and professor of horticulture.

"This method of micropropagation has been field tested and now is used worldwide," she said. "More than 100 million cacao plants produced by somatic embryogenesis are now in farmers' fields. However, of the world's estimated 9 billion cocoa plants, just 5 to 15 percent produce about 80 to 90 percent of the yield. If we can use this method to rapidly clone high-yielding plants and get them into production, together with other agronomic improvements, we potentially could increase yields up to six-fold."

By helping farmers increase sustainable production of high-quality cocoa, the research can improve growers' access to the cocoa value chain, boosting incomes and standards of living in economically depressed regions, Guiltinan and Maximova said. It also can contribute to diversification of farmer income through co-crop products such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, nuts and timber species used as shade trees and to produce wood products.

In addition, cacao farms provide positive ecosystem services through carbon capture, soil stabilization and increased biodiversity.

Perhaps just as important as the program's scientific advances are the educational impacts, the researchers contend. Twenty-four graduate students have earned advanced degrees working with the program, representing the next generation of cocoa researchers. More than 40 postdoctoral scholars and visiting scientists from cocoa labs around the world have come to Penn State for research and training. Guiltinan and Maximova also have traveled the world giving workshops and seminars to share the knowledge as widely as possible.

Paul Fritz - cocoa symposium

Retired biochemist Paul Fritz, the first director of Penn State's endowed cocoa research program, speaks at the recent symposium, "Frontiers in Science and Technology for Cacao Quality, Productivity and Sustainability."

Image: Penn State

So where does the research program go from here? In fact, the goals of the program are not so different now than they were when the cocoa endowment first was announced 30 years ago. Retired Penn State biochemist Paul Fritz, the program's first director and a speaker at the symposium, in 1986 told Penn State Agriculture magazine that scientists planned to take the cocoa bean apart and put it back together as a better bean.

"That is a large order," he told the magazine. "The cacao plant takes three to five years to bear fruit, and the industry cannot afford to wait that long. With molecular biology, we can perform an accelerated version of classical breeding," which, he said, could lead to more pods on each cocoa tree, more and bigger beans in each pod, and trees that are resistant to drought, cold, fungi and viruses.

"We're not there yet, but the future is in view," said Guiltinan. "Our community has made tremendous progress over the past 30 years, thanks to the efforts of many of our colleagues that attended the symposium. Cacao breeding programs throughout the world already have benefited from applications of genomics research."

He noted that the research team is on the verge of discovering all of the genes responsible for the productivity and quality of cocoa and has the tools to use this information to accelerate breeding programs. "At the same time, the cacao science community has gained a much better understanding of the agroforestry systems and interactions with the environmental and social structures in cacao-growing communities.

"This positions us at a crucial time in the development of the entire cocoa value chain and the evolution of life sciences research capabilities," Guiltinan said. "The entire cacao/cocoa sector has contributed to advancements over 30 years that have set the stage for a truly sustainable cocoa value chain of the future, which will provide benefits to farmers, the environment, industry and society -- including chocolate lovers -- for many years to come."

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Last Updated June 20, 2016