Article image
07-07-2024

New discovery will help 'climate-proof' chocolate

Ever wondered where your favorite chocolate comes from? A consortium of scientists from around the globe have discovered three new species closely linked to the cherished chocolate plant, Theobroma cacao.

This research not only broadens our understanding of plant biodiversity but could also swing open the door to climate-resistant cocoa – a vital ingredient for chocolate lovers.

This operation has been spearheaded by Dr. James Richardson from the University College Cork School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences and the Environmental Research Institute, along with other notable experts from the University of São Paulo and the New York Botanical Garden.

Cacao plant species

The newly unveiled speciesT. globosum, T. nervosum, and T. schultesii – are residents of the lush South American rainforests. They belong to the section Herrania, closely related to the Theobroma cacao, the cocoa-bearing tree revered for its economic impact.

“These new species were discovered as a result of studying specimens in herbaria and demonstrate the importance of maintaining these natural history collections as many more species remain to be discovered within them,” said Dr. Richardson.

“That there were recently unknown species closely related to Theobroma cacao, which is of huge importance for the production of chocolate and other products, shows how much more work there is to be done to catalog the vast amount of unknown biodiversity across our planet.”

A silver lining for the chocolate lining

With climate change looming like a dark cloud over global industries, the cocoa sector is no exception. However, each silver cloud has a chocolate lining.

This scientific breakthrough could lead to the development of more climate-resilient cocoa trees, promising a more sustainable future for our beloved chocolate production.

“Cacao prices have trebled in recent months due to low production as a result of a prolonged period of drought in West Africa, which is the area of greatest production,” noted Dr. Richardson.

“The discovery of new species, in addition to those already known, expands the genetic resources available to us that might allow us to produce drought-tolerant or disease-resistant cocoa trees.”

Future research and potential innovations

The discovery of these new species opens numerous avenues for future research. Scientists are now keen to sequence the genomes of T. globosum, T. nervosum, and T. schultesii to uncover genetic markers for traits such as drought resistance and disease tolerance.

The research team conducted meticulous examinations of leaves, flowers, and fruits and liaised with multiple botanical institutions on their quest to uncover these new species.

Like detectives leafing through a case file, they scanned through samples, cross-reference data, and eventually hit the jackpot.

Such knowledge and techniques could be instrumental in breeding programs aimed at developing robust cocoa varieties.

Collaborative projects are expected to spring up between institutions worldwide, driven by a collective goal: to secure the future of chocolate production in the face of climatic and environmental changes.

The journey of these new species from the hidden depths of herbaria to the forefront of scientific progress exemplifies the limitless potential of human curiosity and innovation.

More on Theobroma Cacao species

Theobroma cacao, often hailed as the “food of the gods,” is more than just a plant. It’s a cornerstone of global agriculture and culture.

Native to tropical regions of Central and South America, this evergreen tree produces cacao beans. These beans are the heart of the chocolate-making process.

They undergo a fascinating journey of fermentation, drying, roasting, and grinding to become the chocolate we love.

Botanically, Theobroma cacao is a marvel. Its flowers bloom directly on the trunk and branches, a rare phenomenon called cauliflory. This leads to pods filled with prized seeds.

With a diverse range of flavors and pest resistances, cacao presents exciting opportunities and challenges. Researchers aim to unlock its full potential.

So, what’s next for the team? There’s plenty more to explore in this green-and-brown world of chocolate. Who knows, maybe next time you bite into a chocolate bar, you’ll be tasting the sweet success of scientific discovery. After all, science is a lot like chocolate – the more you know, the more you enjoy it!

The study is published in the journal Kew Bulletin.

—–

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and Earth.com.

—–

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day
Subscribe