Sequencing for superior chocolate
While genomic research has the potential to improve people’s lives through medical discoveries, it can also be applied to improving the foods we eat and the clothes we wear.
In partnership with one of the world’s leading chocolate manufacturers, Mars, Inc., the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others, HudsonAlpha husband-and-wife team Jane Grimwood and Jeremy Schmutz sequenced the genome of cacao, from which cocoa and chocolate are made. The information may improve the way breeders and farmers around the world raise and harvest the crop.
The researchers learned why some cacao variations are optimal for breeding, yet produce an undesirable flavor or aroma. Other variations, when combined with different beans, increase flavor and color yet decrease the quality. Additionally, sequencing identified resistance to various diseases and other horticultural traits.
This project is especially beneficial for cacao farmers and breeders in West Africa, Asia and South America who are using the genetic information to improve planting stocks and protect often-fragile incomes. Unlike food products such as corn or wheat, which are often grown on large, industrial farms, cacao is almost exclusively grown on small, individual farms. It also provides a livelihood for more than 5 million farmers, many of whom live in poverty. Raising productivity and income is an important step towards improving the standard of living in impoverished communities dependent on cacao.
“Cacao is a major export of many African and Asian countries and is a high value crop,” said Schmutz. “Utilizing the genomic sequence to improve breeding programs forms the basis for maintaining and improving the stability of the cacao supply.”
Grimwood and Schmutz run the Genome Sequencing Center at HudsonAlpha where the assembly of the cacao genome took place, as well as the chromosome scale reconstructions to produce the final reference sequence.
Sequencing the Upland cotton genome
In 2015, the team received a $2.4 million grant to continue research on Upland cotton. The HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center will produce a high-quality reference genome for tetraploid cotton, which can then be used for genomically-enabled improvements. HudsonAlpha is collaborating with four other researchers on the project. Cotton is a major crop in the Southeast United States.
“We are excited to apply our experience in plant genomics to a crop which is of such major economic importance to Alabama and the rest of the Southeast,” said Grimwood. “The reference genome sequence generated as a result of this work will form the basis for accelerated breeding for important agronomic traits in tetraploid cotton.”
Cotton has an economic impact of more than $200 million in South Carolina and generates $500 billion worldwide. Improving Upland cotton fiber yield and quality will help clothe, feed and fuel the ever-expanding human population.