What's inside chocolate, strawberries
December 26th, 2010
01:01 PM ET

What's inside chocolate, strawberries

Strawberries and chocolate go all too well together in fondue, cakes, and any other dessert you can imagine. Now, scientists are learning more than ever about the genetic makeup of both of these foods, and that knowledge could lead to genetically modified versions that are more nutritious and easier to grow.

The journal Nature Genetics is publishing studies about the genomes of each of these foods. Each of the studies is led by a different international team of researchers, and has received a mixture of academic, U.S. government and industry funding (strawberry industry groups contributed to research on that fruit, and Hershey Corp. helped fund the cocoa study).

By sequencing the strawberry genome, scientists can learn about how the fruits could be bio-engineered to be bigger, better-tasting, and more resistant to disease, said Kevin Folta, University of Florida researcher who collaborated on the study of the woodland strawberry. Folta estimates that it will be another 5 to 10 years before strawberries genetically modified for these qualities hit the market.

This is the first sequencing of the wild strawberry genome, and one of the first of any important fruit, said co-author Mark Borodovsky of Georgia Institute of Technology. The grape's genome was sequenced in 2008, and the apple earlier this year.

Strawberries are rich in many kinds of compounds implicated in health benefits, such as antioxidants. Antioxidants may guard your body from free radicals, atoms or groups of atoms that can damage cells. Understanding the genes underlying the synthesis of these beneficial substances may lead to the creation of strawberries that produce higher amounts of those compounds.

The cocoa study, similarly, could lead to the invention of more nutritious chocolate, said Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University, who collaborated with a large consortium of researchers from around the world. They found 96 genes in the flavonoid pathway; flavonoids are compounds thought to improve artery health and reduce inflammation. Special breeding could increase those flavonoids.

"That would mean we’d be able to get more of these healthy, health-beneficial nutrients from chocolate with eating less chocolate; that’s probably a good thing," Guiltinan said.

In fact, German researchers announced in March that eating as little as a quarter ounce of chocolate per day could lower heart attack and stroke risk. Other research has linked eating cocoa to lowering blood pressure, improving blood vessel function, lowering bad cholesterol (LDL), and increasing good cholesterol (HDL).

Guiltinan and colleagues studied Criollio cacao, a tree that the Maya domesticated about 3,000 years ago in Central America. It used in fine gourmet chocolate, and only in about 5% of commercial chocolate, because of its susceptibility to disease and low production. Chocolate made from it has more flowery, fruity notes than what's in your average candy bar, said Siela Maximova, study co-author and associate professor of horticulture at Penn State.

The genome sequence for this tree could help engineer more disease-resistant cacao, which would help local farmers in developing countries, Guiltinan said. Similarly, the strawberry genome could lead to genetically modified fruits that would help strawberry farmers in the developing world, Folta said.

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