Scientists date the origin of the cocoa tree 10 million years ago – sciencedaily

Chocolate, produced from the seeds of the cocoa tree Theobroma cacao, is one of the most popular flavors in the world, with sales of around $ 100 billion a year. Yet, as global demand increases, there are concerns that the industry will fail to cope with the growing public hunger for the product. The main problem, common to many crops, is the lack of genetic variation in cultivated cocoa, which makes it vulnerable to pests and blight. The lack of genetic variation also puts cocoa trees at risk from climate change, compromising the long-term sustainability of the industry.

Today, however, new research suggests that the cocoa tree is much older than previously thought – and that it may have close relationships capable of supporting our greedy appetites.

“Studies on the evolutionary history of economically important groups are vital for developing agricultural industries and demonstrate the importance of biodiversity conservation in contributing to sustainable development. Here we show for the first time that the source of chocolate, Theobroma cacao, is remarkably ancient for an Amazonian plant species, ”says Dr James Richardson, tropical botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, UK, and lead author of the ‘study.

In collaboration with researchers from the University of Rosario and the University of the Andes in Colombia, the University of Miami, United States, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Richardson has discovered that Theobroma cacao is one of the oldest species of the genus Theobroma. , having evolved about 10 million years ago. At the time, the Andes were not yet fully elevated, which is why cocoa trees are found on both sides of the Andes today.

The early evolutionary origin of the species is good news: it suggests that the cocoa tree has had sufficient time to genetically diversify, with each wild population adapting to its local habitat. Wild populations of cocoa across the Americas may therefore be treasures of genetic variation, which could be crossed in cultivated strains to make the latter more resistant to disease and climate change, and perhaps even create new chocolate flavors. .

“After ten million years of evolution, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a large amount of variation within species, some of which may exhibit new flavors or disease-resistant forms. These varieties can help improve a developing chocolate industry, ”says James Richardson.

Researchers are already planning to return to South America to sample all cocoa-related species and study the characteristics of their native populations.

“We hope to highlight the importance of conserving biodiversity so that it can be used to increase and safeguard the agricultural sector. By understanding the diversification processes of chocolate and its relatives, we can contribute to the development of the industry. and demonstrate that this is truly the Age of Chocolate, ”says co-author Dr Santiago Madriñán of the University of the Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

The study is published in the open access journal Frontiers in ecology and evolution.

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