Back in 2008, Mars announced plans to “unlock” the cacao genome to better understand the plant, improve its quality, and bolster its production. Mars and its partners – USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and IBM – said it wouldn’t be done until 2012. Well, three years early, help is on the way for 6.5 million cocoa farmers and the 40-50 million people who rely on the crop for their livelihood. Today, Mars and its partners announced that the preliminary cacao genome is ready for public release via the Cacao Genome Database (www.cacaogenomedb.org).
The main goal of sequencing the cacao genome is to improve the cocoa growing process and bolster traditional breeding programs (i.e., where scientists decide which plants to breed together to get the most desirable characteristics). By understanding and characterizing the genome, scientists can help farmers produce three or four times more cocoa than what they usually produce, but on less land surface. Farmers can then use the “extra space” to grow more crops, use natural resources and fertilizer more efficiently, and increase their income.
Mars has made the deliberate decision to make the genome sequence publicly available, so that other companies can’t patent the genome and use it for their own private interests rather than addressing public needs. By releasing the preliminary sequence now, scientists, academics and cocoa cultivators can start using the information to help farmers immediately. Mars and its partners will continue to analyze and characterize the cacao genome in preparation for submission to peer-reviewed publications.
The key to releasing the genome much earlier than expected was a combination of advanced genome sequencing technology and constant re-calibration and real-time collaboration between government, private industry and academics. The public release of the genome is powerful example of what can happen when the scientific community and business can work together for a greater good, and marks a promising first step in advancing farmers’ ability to plant more robust, higher yielding and drought and disease-resistant trees.