The Origins of Chocolate: Cacao Tree Dates Back 10 Million Years

First Posted: Nov 12, 2015 08:43 AM EST

Most people like chocolate. And most people know that chocolate comes from the cacao tree. Now, though, researchers have taken a closer look at this delicious treat and the tree it comes from, and have traced back the origins of the plant.

Understanding the genetic history of the cacao tree is important for the future of the industry. Cultivated cacao has little genetic variation, which makes it vulnerable to pests and blights. This also puts it at risk from climate change.

"Studies of the evolutionary history of economically important groups are vital to develop agricultural industries, and demonstrate the importance of conserving biodiversity to contribute towards sustainable development," said James Richardson, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Here we show for the first time that the source of chocolate, Theobroma cacao, is remarkably old for an Amazonian plant species."

In fact, the researchers found that Theobroma cacao is one of the oldest species in the genus Theobroma. It evolved about 10 billion years ago, which was during a time when the Andes were not yet fully elevated. This explains why cacao trees today occur on both sides of the Andes.

Fortunately, this is good news for cacao. It suggests that cacao has had enough time to diversity genetically, with each wild population adapting to its local habitat. This means that wild populations of cacao across the Americas could be huge when it comes to introducing genetic variation into cultivated strains of cacao.

"After ten millions years of evolution we should not be surprised to see a large amount of variation within the species, some of which might exhibit novel flavors or forms that are resistant to diseases," said Richardson. "These varieties may contribute towards improving a developing chocolate industry."

The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

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