STATE COLLEGE, Pa., April 20 (UPI) -- What controls cocoa butter's melting point? A single genetic trait. And researchers at Penn State say they've found it.
Scientists say their discovery will allow them to manipulate the substance's melting point, and will ultimately lead to new and improved products. Cocoa butter is widely used in food and pharmaceutical products.
Their findings may also allow plant geneticists to develop new and improved varieties of the cocoa plant -- varieties that thrive in a wider variety of climes and soil. The new insight could even encourage higher efficiency yields and boost farm revenue for growers.
"The 'snap' and 'melt' of chocolate are two very important textural features that determine the appeal of chocolate to consumers, and having new varieties of the cocoa plant that produce butter with different melting points would be a valuable resource to control those characteristics," researcher Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University, explained in a press release.
Altering the melting point could allow chocolatiers to create new types of chocolate products with new applications.
"Medical applications could include production of drug-delivery products with slower release of drugs than is possible with current cocoa butter-based systems," Guiltinan added.
Guiltinan's team has previously worked to sequence the cocoa plant's entire genome. More recently, he and his colleagues have been working to explore which genes are responsible for the enzymes that control plant function. Lately they have been focusing on a family of genes related to stearoyl-acyl carrier protein desaturase (SAD).
Researchers found that a single SAD gene, TcSAD1, is responsible for determining cocoa butter's melting point.
"We used state-of-the-art plant science techniques to gain evidence for the role of the SAD1 gene in cocoa butter biosynthesis," Guiltinan said. "The other SAD genes appear to play other roles in the growth of the chocolate tree, such as flower and leaf development, where these fatty acids play important roles as key components of various membrane systems. This information can be used to develop biomarkers for screening and breeding of new cacao varieties with novel fatty acid compositions of cocoa butter."
The new research was published this month in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.