2. Cocoa Science Crash Course

Cocoa Science Crash Course:
Have you ever seen a Frankenstein tree? In front of the main building of the Mars Center for Cocoa Science there is a tree, which is known as the Frankenstein tree among associates. It was created by grafting thirteen different varieties of cocoa together. This is why one branch of the tree does not look like the other. It is a natural technique that has been used by farmers for many centuries. On my fourth day, I could get a chance to create my own little Frankenstein cocoa tree by grafting and also get a hands-on experience in cocoa science at the on-site laboratories of the MCCS. For instance, in the biology lab I had a glimpse of the incredible diversity of cocoa and the breeding of nearly perfect clones, which were more resistant to diseases and also had a higher yield. My instructors were the bio-technology engineer Claudia and her assistant. They explained to me the programme that the MCCS undertakes to select the best varieties to multiply, and later on I had the opportunity to plant a few embryos in a glass jar myself. In this laboratory process it is possible to propagate several identical cocoa plants from a single flower – this process is called somatic embryogenesis. Afterwards, we visited the chemistry lab, the micro-biology lab, as well as ‘crown jewel’ of the Mars Center – the genetics lab. In 2010, a group of scientists under the leadership of Prof. Howard Yana-Shapiro unlocked the sequence of the cocoa genome and published this knowledge to the public domain, so that everyone would have free and continued access to it. Yana-Shapiro, who is Mars-internally also known as the ‘godfather of cocoa’, said that without engineering higher-yielding cocoa trees, demand would outstrip supply within 50 years, which represents a threat to the global confectionary industry. Jean-Philippe and the MCCS researchers are conducting further scientific experiments and studies to counteract this trend, thereby also helping biodiversity and farmers’ welfare in the cocoa-growing region of Bahia. In this regard, my hands-on experience in the genetics lab was very relevant and exciting. In the morning, I have collected cocoa leaves and used a plethora of chemical substances to extract cocoa DNA from these leaves. Studying this DNA would allow scientists to reduce the fat content of cocoa, increase its disease resistance and to increase the yield of cocoa trees. Thus, these kind of improvements could directly affect the lives of some 6.5 million small cocoa farmers around the globe.

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