Addiction to the beans of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, has been attributed to cultures as ancient as the Mayans and Aztecs, whose leaders guzzled fermentations of them, and used them as currency. Today the cacao tree is responsible for a $13 billion dollar-a-year chocolate industry in the U.S. alone.
However, in the face of climate change and the spread of diseases, chocolate companies are getting jittery about the strength of their cacao tree stocks. Mars Candy, along with IBM and the USDA, hopes to ensure the survival of at least some mutant form of the cacao tree by plunking out $10M to sequence the entire genome of the plant. Howard Yonashapiro, Chief Plant Scientist for Mars Candy, says the sequenced genome will “allow cacao breeders to much more efficiently introduce desired traits and to produce entirely new lines of cacao plants leading to a vast number of farmer benefits.”