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27.12.10

Scientists have mapped the complete genetic code of both for the first time in a development that could lead to tastier and healthier varieties.

Two international teams of scientists made the achievements at the same time and published their findings in the journal Nature Genetics.

The chocolate team, headed by scientists at the French agricultural research centre CIRAD, sequenced the DNA make up of the Theobroma cacao, a tree that makes some of the finest chocolate in the world.

At present many growers prefer to grow hybrid cacao trees that produce chocolate of lower quality but are more resistant to disease.

But it is hoped that this genome could lead to modifications that make the finer chocolate easier to grow and perhaps even more tasty.

 

"Fine cocoa production is estimated to be less than five percent of the world cocoa production because of low productivity and disease susceptibility," said co-author Professor Mark Guiltinan of Penn State University.

Currently, most cacao farmers earn about £1 per day, but producers of fine cacao earn more.

Increasing the productivity and ease of growing finer quality cacao can help to develop a sustainable cacao economy.

The trees are now also seen as an environmentally beneficial crop because they grow best under forest shade, allowing for forest rehabilitation and enriched biodiversity.

Meanwhile the other team led by the University of Florida cracked the genome of the woodland strawberry, a wild variety of the fruit.

The development is expected to unlock possibilities for breeding tastier, hardier varieties of the berry and other crops in its family.

"We've created the strawberry parts list," said the consortium's leader Professor Kevin Folta.

"For every organism on the planet, if you're going to try to do any advanced science or use molecular-assisted breeding, a parts list is really helpful.

"In the old days, we had to go out and figure out what the parts were. Now we know the components that make up the strawberry plant."

From a genetic standpoint, the woodland strawberry, formally known as Fragaria vesca, is similar to the cultivated strawberry but less complex, making it easier for scientists to study.

The researchers found that the wild strawberry genome possesses around 35,000 genes, about one and a half times the number humans have, most of which, they predict will have been retained by the varieties we eat

The breakthroughs is expected to help farmers pinpoint what makes strawberries juicy, flavoursome and healthy.

It could lead to new hardier varieties that can grow in harsher environments.

Strawberries are a valuable crop with sales of home-grown strawberries in the UK alone of £231million in 2009.

The wild strawberry is also closely related to other important food crops including apples, peaches, pears and raspberries, and to roses, and its genome sequence will help breeders of all of these plants to produce new varieties with improved traits.

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