Chocolate, produced from seeds of the cacao tree Theobroma cacao, is one of the most popular flavors in the world, with sales around 100$ billion dollars per year. Yet, as worldwide demand increases, there are fears the industry will fail to cope with growing public hunger for the product. The main problem, common to many crops, is the lack of genetic variation in cultivated cacao, which makes it vulnerable to pests and blights. Lack of genetic variation also puts cacao trees at risk from climate change, jeopardizing the long-term sustainability of the industry.
Photo Credit: Santiago Madriñán
Now, however, new research suggests the cacao tree is much older than previously realized -- and may have close relations capable of sustaining our sweet-toothed appetites.
"Studies of the evolutionary history of economically important groups are vital to develop agricultural industries, and demonstrate the importance of conserving biodiversity to contribute towards sustainable development. Here we show for the first time that the source of chocolate, Theobroma cacao, is remarkably old for an Amazonian plant species," says Dr James Richardson, a tropical botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, UK, and lead author of the study.