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Chocolate genome could unlock tastier, healthier candy

Chocolate genome may hold secrets for better sweets. That's why Mars and Hershey have spent millions to crack the code.

By / September 20, 2010

Chocolate genome may share secrets on how to improve sweets. Of course, gene research wasn't necessary to create the world's largest chocolate brick, pictured. The candy bar in Yereven, Armenia weighs 9,722 pounds and measures 18.3 by 9.0 by 0.8 feet.

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Scientists are hard at work analyzing the chocolate genome, the genetic code behind the cocoa tree, which they hope could one day make candy bars taste better, cost less, and maybe come guilt free. This month marks a major step forward for their research.

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Two rival coalitions each claim to have nearly finished decoding the chocolate genome.

Mars, maker of M&M and Snickers, dedicated $10 million to this goal two year ago. Teaming up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and tech giant IBM, the confectioner announced earlier this month that it had cracked more than 92 percent of the genome. Their work is available for free at the Cacao Genome Database, a clearinghouse set up by Mars to aid chocolate research.

“This will help guarantee a sustainable future for cocoa for the farmers, the consumers and Mars Inc.,” Howard-Yana Shapiro, the head of plant research at Mars, told the New York Times.

The Mars news flew in the face of Hershey, maker of Reese's and Kit Kat, which helped fund similar research by the French government and Pennsylvania State University. That consortium says it will wait and release its research in a forthcoming scientific paper.

Now that most of the chocolate genome has been deciphered, scientists can work to manipulate the genes. Neither group has said how it plans to fiddle with cocoa. Options include creating a strain resistant to "witches’ broom," a fungal infection that The New York Times says devastated Brazil's cocoa crop. Research could also lead to better tasting chocolate or increase cocoa's natural production of flavonoids, which studies show may be good for your body.

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[Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the weight of the world's largest chocolate bar. It weighs 9,722 pounds.]

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