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6/27/2008
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IBM Teams With Mars To Sweeten Cocoa Research

The computing giant plans to sequence and analyze the cocoa genome, which lies at the heart of all the world's chocolaty goodness.

Note to budding Willie Wonkas -- there may be a place for you at IBM.

The computing giant is teaming up with confectioner Mars Inc., along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to sequence and analyze the cocoa genome, which lies at the heart of all the world's chocolaty goodness.

Scientists at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., will use computational biology technology and supercomputers to map out the cocoa gene.

IBM says the research could enable farmers to plant better quality cocoa and grow cocoa crops that produce higher yields and are more resistant to insects and diseases.

It could also help boost agriculture in Africa, where 70% of the world's cocoa is produced.

"Sequencing the genomes of agriculture crops is a critical step if we want to better understand and improve a crop," said Judy St. John, the USDA's deputy administrator for crop production, in a statement.

Genome sequencing -- a process whereby the order of DNA molecules that make up a chromosome is determined -- could make it easier for food producers to identify the genetic traits that allow crops, such as cocoa, to produce higher yields and resist environmental antagonists.

Mars, which produces the famous Mars bar, will work closely with IBM in the effort. "Mars saw the potential this research holds to help accelerate what farmers have been doing since the beginning of time" -- trying to find faster ways to grow healthier crops, said Howard-Yana Shapiro, global director of plant science at Mars, in a statement.

IBM said cocoa has been somewhat neglected when it comes to agricultural research compared to major crops such as corn, wheat, and rice. But it notes that the crop is economically important, and not just to Africa.

For every dollar's worth of cocoa imported to the U.S., one to two dollars of American agricultural products are used in turning it into chocolate, according to IBM.

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