Coming Soon: Glow in the Dark Chocolate
Mars, Inc. announces today that its researchers have sucessfully decoded the genome for chocolate (specifically, the Theobroma cacao tree). This gives Mars an important edge in bragging rights over rival Hershey, who had sponsored a French government team of scientists team in a head to head race to sequence the DNA of the cocoa bean. Team Hershey isn’t quite finished yet, but promises that their report will be just as good.
You may be surprised to learn that Mars has a huge research arm dedicated to all things chocolate in support of its quest for global candy domination. Mars, Inc. is a closely held private company famous for its secretiveness and inaccessibly, so it’s hard to know just what the company is up to. But Mars seems to have an entire division dedicated to speculative chocolate pursuits; Howard Yana-Shapiro is the “global director of plant science and external research” at Mars. And Mars has other intellectual interests. Mars collaborates with UC Davis to sponsor the “Chocolate History Group.” In 2009, Mars sponsored the publication of Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage (Wiley) featuring 57 scholarly essays by 100 experts documenting and analyzing the history and culture of chocolate.
The Mars scientists will make their genome sequence public and prohibit restrictive patents based on the genetic data. So this new science is all for the public good: it may lead to more disease resistant trees, higher yields, better tasting chocolate. One area researchers are particularly interested in is flavonoids, chemicals found in chocolate that are believed to have important heath benefits. So we may be seeing genetically modified, flavonoid boosted “neutraceutical” chocolate in the future, tasty medicine available without a prescription.
But I think these utilitarian ideas of enhancing chocolate betray a lack of imagination. Once you start messing around with the genome, why stick to such boring stuff as flavor and flavonoids? Scientists have isolated the DNA code that makes certain jellyfish flouresce, and transferred it to mice. But why not glow in the dark chocolate? Think how that would revolutionize late night snacking. And once you do that, you could go farther: how about using the gene that makes certain bacteria eat oil to create a chocolate bar the dissolves your belly fat? Or how about inserting the animal gene that makes hair grow: watch out, Rogaine! Of course, you’d have to be careful with that one, since the last thing anyone wants is a chocolate bar that grows hair.
More at the New York Times: Andrew Pollack, Rival Candy Projects Both Parse Cocoa’s DNA (15 Sept 2010)