BOGOTA, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is much older than previously thought, 10 million years old. Scientists say the species boasts the genetic diversity necessary to withstand growing cultivation pressures.
The cacao tree, of course, produces cacao beans, which go on to become chocolate. More than 17 million acres worldwide are dedicated to cultivating the tree and its beans, mostly in tropical Africa, South and Central America and Southeast Asia.
A wildly lucrative crop and growing in popularity, farmers and agricultural researchers have worried cacao might become vulnerable to pests, disease and climate change as its supposed limited genomic backbone becomes increasingly strained.
But in tracing the history of the genus Theobroma, researchers in Colombia, the United States and Europe found Theobroma cacao to be its oldest species. At 10 million years old, the species first emerged in South America when the Andes had not yet reached full height, which explains why the the tree developed on both sides of the mountain range.
Its long history inhabiting unique pockets of the habitat should have offered the tree ample opportunity for genetic diversification, researchers say.
"After ten million years of evolution we should not be surprised to see a large amount of variation within the species, some of which might exhibit novel flavours or forms that are resistant to diseases," James Richardson, a tropical botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in Scotland, said in a press release. "These varieties may contribute towards improving a developing chocolate industry."
Richardson is the lead author of a new paper on the subject, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. He plans to rejoin his research partners in Colombia to further explore the genetic variations among local cacao populations in South America.
"We hope to highlight the importance of conserving biodiversity so that it can be used to augment and safeguard the agricultural sector," said co-author Santiago Madrinan, a researcher at the University of the Andes in Bogota. "By understanding the diversification processes of chocolate and its relatives we can contribute to the development of the industry and demonstrate that this truly is the Age of Chocolate."