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A Sweet Sequence: The Cacao Genome

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Areas of Science
Time Required
Long (2-4 weeks)
A high school level introductory biology course is a prerequisite for this science project.
Material Availability
Readily available
Very Low (under $20)
No issues

Sandra Slutz, PhD, Science Buddies

*Note: For this science project you will need to develop your own experimental procedure. Use the information in the summary tab as a starting place. If you would like to discuss your ideas or need help troubleshooting, use the Ask An Expert forum. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions and offer guidance if you come to them with specific questions.

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Can you imagine Valentine's Day or Halloween without chocolate? Well, if you're a chocolate lover brace yourself for the bad news. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), "Worldwide demand for cacao now exceeds production." If there isn't enough cacao, the major raw ingredient for chocolate, then the chocolate supply will dwindle. Hang on! Before you start rushing to the store to buy all the chocolate you can get your hands on, a solution is already in the works. In 2008, IBM, Mars Inc., and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, and several other academic partners, joined together to sequence the cacao genome. As articulated in the video below, the goal of the project is to find out which genes need to be altered, through genetic engineering or selective breeding, to create more drought- and pest-resistant Theobroma cacao trees that produce larger quantities of cacao pods.

Cocoa Genome
Watch this video on studying the cocoa genome.

In September 2010, the collaboration finished sequencing 92 percent of the genome. The sequence data was made available to the public through the Cacao Genome Database. Now, scientists throughout the world, including you, can start figuring out how to make healthier, more robust and prolific cacao trees to protect the world's chocolate supply. Researchers will be asking many different types of questions, like which genes control drought tolerance, temperature tolerance, yield, and pathogen resistance. You can ask those same questions! For example, you can evaluate what pathogens might be able to successfully attack the sequenced strain of cacao, Matina 1–6, and which pathogens this cacao plant is immune to. First, you'll need to do some background reading to learn what types of pathogens (fungi, bacteria, and/or viruses) commonly attack cacao.

The Science Buddies guide to Resources for Finding and Accessing Scientific Papers can help you get your literature search started. Once you've focused in on a few key pathogens, comb the literature for known genes in other plants that confer sensitivity or resistance to these pathogens. Using BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool, which you can read more about in the Bibligoraphy), or other DNA comparison tools, look for homologous genes in the cacao genome. Based on your homolog search, you'll be able to make predictions about whether or not Matina 1–6 is immune to that particular pathogen. You might even be able to confirm your findings using phenotypic data published about Matina 1–6. With some genetic interference and a little bit of luck, you might never need to face a chocolateless holiday!


Here are a few websites that will help you with this project:

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Global Connections

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) are a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.
This project explores topics key to Zero Hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.


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MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "A Sweet Sequence: The Cacao Genome." Science Buddies, 2 Oct. 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Genom_p021/genetics-genomics/cacao-genome. Accessed 30 Nov. 2023.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2020, October 2). A Sweet Sequence: The Cacao Genome. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Genom_p021/genetics-genomics/cacao-genome

Last edit date: 2020-10-02
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