It’s the most delicious genetic breakthrough yet. A consortium led by Mars Inc., the company behind such treats as M&Ms and Snickers, has announced the rough draft of the cacao tree’s genome, and researchers say the information could lead to improvements in the chocolate supply.
While the scientists are just beginning to analyze the genome, understanding the tree’s innermost workings could lead to breeding programs for drought- or disease-resistant varieties, or even for trees that produce tastier or healthier cocoa. The consortium has put the data online at the Cacao Genome Database for use by any and all.
The tree, known officially as Theobroma cacao (meaning “food of the gods”), contains about 420 million DNA units, represented by the letters A, C, G and T. That is fairly small for a plant. The human genome has about three billion units. [New York Times]
Scientists have long suspected that a link exists between mood and chocolate, as studies (done primarily with women) have suggested that eating a chocolate bar temporarily banished the blues. Now a study has brought new complexity to the issue with its finding that depressed people consume larger amounts of chocolate. But researchers are no closer to figuring out which factor is the cause and which is the effect: Do glum people reach for a Hershey bar to lift their spirits, or is the chocolate actually bringing them down?
For this study, researchers at the University of California studied 931 men and women who weren’t on antidepressants and quizzed them on their chocolate-chomping habits. Then, using a standard screening survey, they assessed the volunteers for symptoms of depression. The scientists found that those who were the most blue consumed the most chocolate.
The chemical signatures of chocolate have been found on pottery shards in New Mexico dating from 1000 A.D., indicating that the practice of drinking chocolate had reached North America 400 years earlier than expected–and that the imbibers went to great lengths to procure the delicacy. The nearest source for the cacao, which was made into a bitter beverage used in religious and other rituals, was more than 1,200 miles to the south in Mexico [Los Angeles Times].
Traces of the cacao seeds that are the source of chocolate were found in shards from cylinder jars found at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico. The site was occupied by the Chaco culture for millenniums, but it grew rapidly beginning about AD 900. The multistory pueblo itself contains an estimated 800 rooms [Los Angeles Times]. One of those rooms housed a collection of 111 tall, cylindrical vessels, and anthropologist Patricia Crown had been puzzling over their use. Previously, researchers thought that Spanish conquistadors carried the first cacao seeds to North America centuries later.