Theobroma cacao

Today’s entry for the UBC Research Week series is courtesy of Kevin Kubeck (Greenhouse Manager / Horticulturist in the UBC Department of Botany) and Hannes Dempewolf, a graduate student in botany, who you may remember from the series last year on underutilized species. The photographer is Daniela Horna, who works for the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C.

Kevin writes (with input from Hannes):

Here is a project to tantalize the taste buds as well as a great example of collaboration.

Theobroma cacao L. (Malvaceae) has already been featured on BPotD, so I’ll give some additional information in the context of this specific project.

World Cocoa Foundation, an umbrella group for sustainable cacao farming, remarks that there are between 5-6 million cacao farmers worldwide with a production of 3 million tons per year. Similar to coffee production, most of the cacao farming takes place in tropical regions of the world where issues of fair trade, economic and agricultural sustainability as well as biodiversity are tantamount. The hope is to increase the value of the cacao product, by identifying the best varieties for each region. Like a fine wine, single-source chocolate commands a better price on the market because of its gourmet qualities.

In a partnership between Bioversity International, the Ministry of Agriculture of Trinidad and Tobago, the Cronk and Rieseberg Labs, the USDA and the World Bank, PhD candidate Hannes Dempewolf hopes to use molecular techniques to address issues of interest to cacao farmers.

The primary goal is to try and find genetic markers that identify specific varieties of cacao, a chocolate fingerprint if you will. Many traditional markers rely on chromosomal DNA but these can confound lineages because chromosomes are inherited from both parents. Plastid DNA, the small circular DNA inside chloroplasts can be a more reliable test for lineage because the plastids are inherited maternally. The caveat is that the plastid is harder to isolate — a requirement for the subsequent sequencing step. Recent advances in ‘high throughput’ sequencing have opened up the possibility of rapidly sequencing multiple entire plastid genomes in order to compare them and identify variable regions for the establishment of a standardized fingerprinting method. This DNA fingerprinting technique can then be used to identify specific varities, allowing chocolate traders, exporters and manufacturers to reliably identify and trace varieties along the value chain. Chocophiles rejoice!

Theobroma used to be placed in the Sterculiaceae, but has been moved recently into the Malvaceae along with several other well known genera in families such as Bombaceae and Tiliaceae. The Malvaceae Info site details and displays the species now placed in the Malvaceae by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group.

Theobroma cacao

17 responses to “Theobroma cacao”

  1. thegardener

    i understand these plants are tempermental in their cultivation requirements.

  2. Old Ari

    Theobroma ?A heavenly odour? my greek is not so good.

  3. Quin

    This is a wonderful photo, thanks all – looks like a heavenly Jack o Lantern! Are you growing this @ UBC?! Only dreaming of it in central CA

  4. Michael F

    “a chocolate fingerprint if you will” – I’m leaving chocolate fingerprints on my computer keyboard right now 😉

    “Theobroma ? A heavenly odour? my greek is not so good” – Food of the Gods.

  5. Morris B.

    While I was Staff in the Botany Dept at San Diego State University we grew a number of the Theobroma cacao in the Life Science Greenhouses and when I went out to my own nursery operation in East San Diego County I also germinated and grew seedlings from the fruit of those at SDSU. There was no problem or any difficulty in their cultivation at all.
    Morris, San Diego, Calif.

  6. Connie

    How did they ever get grapes and tomatoes all sorted out before DNA sequencing got started?

  7. Heather

    OMG, cacao.. you’re really speaking my language. now there’s a plant.. thanks UBC for botany photo of the day!

  8. Bonnie

    Why did I think it would be brown?

  9. Annie Morgan

    me too!!
    Super photo of a really gorgeous …. fruit?

  10. Kevin Kubeck

    That’s good news Morris B. We are trying to establish a small number of plants at the Botany greenhouse. I have read that the seeds have a short viability period. Hannes, Dr.Nolan Kane and I went to the Vancouver Aquarium for material last Monday (they have three trees in cultivation) and we are now trying to root cuttings using various methods. If we can establish an effective rooting protocol the next step is to get material from the USDA, either as cuttings or bud wood for grafting.

  11. thad davis

    Theobroma ?A heavenly odour? my greek is not so good.
    Posted by: Old Ari at March 13, 2009 3:15 PM
    To Old Ari, ….
    Re: Theobroma odorada, I too wondered about the derivation of the genus name Theobroma. My references told me that theo = god or divine, while broma = food. Put them together and you get “divine food.” Nowadays we just call it chocolate.
    My absolute favorite reference for derivations, Greek terms and otherwise, is “Composition of Scientific Words,” Roland Wilbur Brown, 1956; 882 p. I think every student should have a copy!

  12. FrankTheTank

    Isn’t Theobroma cacao usually placed into the Sterculiacaea family?

  13. Michael F

    “Isn’t Theobroma cacao usually placed into the Sterculiacaea family?”

    See the last paragraph of the account!

  14. Renee in Central Texas

    Of all edible plants… what this turns into is my favorite. Thanks for an entry we can sink our teeth into. A big thanks to all the scientists who work to make a better chocolate so my tushy can maintain the proper size to support the rest of my chocolate laced body. Big giant chocolate kisses to each of you.

  15. Maurice

    Cultivation is no problem (apparently) if you have absolutely fresh seed. This is the same with coffee. I had near 100% germination with coffee beans straight out of the “cherry”. Theobroma is even more critical, I’ve never been able to get good seed on this one, about a two week viability as far as I can tell, and there is usually a month of APHIS/customs etc. I’ve tried several times with no success, dang it.

  16. Dylan kubeck

    that just looks delicious.I think you should send us one. Merry Christmas Uncle kevin!!

  17. Alexander Jablanczy

    It is probably not the fault of the bitter cacao plant that it has become one of the chief culprit in diabetes obesity heart disease and possibly obesity related cancers.
    I would be interested in coverage or presentation of carob or St Johns Bread which might be an alternate Chocolate analogue.
    I used to buy it even the whole untreated pod but it has disappeared from health food store shelves. It seemed to have much less fat and sugar than any chocolate concoction.
    Apparently a NB chocolate factory retools the production line when they make chocolate for export to Japan, they prefer much less than the horrid North American taste buds which demand or are made to demand horrific amounts of fat and sugar.
    I wonder why carob bars or Japanese chocolate are unavailable in NA.

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