LONDON 4-1-97 - Scientists are scouring the tropics for the genes that could create a super chocolate. A British research team is studying the genetic composition of cocoa trees in a quest for the higher yields that may be needed early in the next century if the world is to have enough chocolate to satisfy demand in the booming economies of Asia. The short-term goal is to promote breeding of improved varieties of tree by using a new method of genetic fingerprinting. The findings could also form a basis for genetically engineered cocoa. Cocoa supply is more than adequate for present consumption and sliding prices reflect this. But analysts believe there may not be enough in the next decade to satisfy the demand if the Chinese, for instance, develop a craving for chocolate. History shows that chocolate be- comes the ultimate indulgence when people's incomes rise. Major Western chocolate manufacturers have already set up shop in China, Russia and other emerging economies to tap the potential demand. The main problem is China - 1.2 billion people. If everybody there eats one chocolate bar a year that's going be an awful lot of cocoa," said Bob Eagle, secretary of Cocoa Research UK Ltd, which is financing the pilot project at the University of Reading .
Geneticists are racing to produce a super- cocoa. CLELIA OZIEL says present types may be unable to meet a growing world demand for chocolate. "You've got to be thinking long,long way ahead." The biggest snag is that cocoa can be grown only within a narrow corridor of 10 degrees north and south of the Equator where soil and weather conditions are just right. Production efficiency is also limited because, in contrast to plantation crops such as bananas, cocoa is grown by small fanners whose expertise of- ten datives from sense and feel. "Most of the trees are ageing. If you have a pickup in consumption you could get a bull market and there will be no fuming off," said Sholom Sanik, soft commodities analyst for the Friedberg Mercantile Group in Toronto. Experts have worked out that if yields were at their maximum the world's potential output would be approximately two tonnes of dry beans a hectare a year compared with about 180kg now. Scientists working on the Reading project say genetic technology can help to achieve a higher yield, early bearing and pest and disease resistance by developing trees which will be best suited to their particular habitat. Deciphering the cocoa genes can be a painstaking task. . Unlike humans and animals, plants reveal their genetic differences only under the microscope. Hence, a researcher may comb an entire potato field only to find out that the potatoes are exactly the same. Identifying the key DNA in plants is so often prone to error that different laboratories may yield different profiles for, the same plant. The problem is even more acute in perennial crops such as cocoa which take five to seven years just to enter the full productive cycle. Experts say genetic engineering, or a simple cross-fertilisation of trees, may produce results in 40 years. What scientists at Reading are hoping for more urgently, however, is to find the genes for such factors as pest resistance or high yield. This may take two or three years. With a bit of luck it may even be possible to come across the gene for exquisite taste, they say. To hasten the process, the Reading molecular biologists have resorted to a new version of a genetic fingerprinting method called "achored micro- satellite." This new approach requires much lower parity in the DNAs which in plants tend to be hidden among a rich source of compounds. It works by tracing the "non-coding" DNAs that feature satellite regions of repeti- tive genetic codes. "The main advantage of this technique is that it's extremely quick. It's able to distinguish between very closely related plants," said Mike Wilkinson, research leader and lecturer in genetics. Results of tests on some varieties of 200 cocoa trees grown at Reading's gene bank were promising and identical profiles were produced in six other labs. Once the pilot study is completed in January, Wilkinson's team will make a proposal for additional money to be able to apply the technique to several thousands of plants around the world. This may, take several years. . Those paying for the research appear little worried about a consumer reaction if the outcome the research is used in genetic engineering. Bob Eagle of Cocoa Research UK, said the idea that genetically modified crops were bad forhealth is a total misconception.