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'Chocolate Trees' Are Older and More Genetically Diverse Than Previously Thought

Nov 15, 2015 08:20 PM EST
Growing chocolate demands rely on genetically diverse cacao trees.
(Photo : Flickr: Shari's Berries)

There has been concern that cacao trees, which produce the seeds that make chocolate, may not be genetically diversified enough to adjust to climate change and keep up with the skyrocketing worldwide demand for chocolate. There may be some good news, though. A team of researchers from the Royal Botanic Garden, the University of Rosario, the University of the Andes, the University of Miami, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently discovered that the cacao tree is much older than previously thought and may have close relatives capable of sustaining demand, according to a news release.

"Studies of the evolutionary history of economically important groups are vital to develop agricultural industries, and demonstrate the importance of conserving biodiversity to contribute towards sustainable development. Here we show for the first time that the source of chocolate, Theobroma cacao, is remarkably old for an Amazonian plant species," Dr.  James Richardson, a tropical botanist and lead author of the study, said in the release.

Theobroma cacao evolved 10 million years ago and is considered the oldest species in the Theobroma genus. When the trees first arrived in South America, the Andes had not been completely erected, which is why they can be seen growing on both sides of the mountains today.

If wild variations of cacao are used to breed a more climate and disease-resistant species, new flavors of chocolate may also emerge, researchers added.

"After ten million years of evolution we should not be surprised to see a large amount of variation within the species, some of which might exhibit novel flavors or forms that are resistant to diseases. These varieties may contribute towards improving a developing chocolate industry," Richardson added.

Their study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, sheds light on the importance of conserving biodiversity.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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