The discovery of a gene involved in determining the melting point of cocoa butter -- a critical attribute of the substance widely used in foods and pharmaceuticals -- will likely lead to new and improved products, according to researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. The finding by plant geneticists also should lead to new varieties of the cocoa plant that could extend the climate and soil-nutrient range for growing the crop and increase the value of its yield, they said, providing a boost to farmers' incomes in the cocoa-growing regions of the world. Cacao, Theobroma cacao L., is an understory tropical tree domesticated in the Amazon basin and today widely cultivated in West Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia. Around the world, more than five million cocoa farmers -- and more than 40 million people total -- depend on cocoa for their livelihood, according to the World Cocoa Foundation, which puts annual cocoa production worldwide at 3.8 million tons, valued at $11.8 billion. Cacao pods, each containing around 40 seeds, are harvested approximately 20 weeks after pollination. The seeds contain about 50 percent total lipids (cocoa butter), which provides a main raw ingredient for chocolate manufacturing, as well as ingredients for pharmaceutical and cosmetic products. Cocoa butter with altered melting points may find new uses in specialty chocolates, cosmeticsm and pharmaceuticals, said lead researcher Dr. Mark Guiltinan, Professor of Plant Molecular Biology, who has been conducting research on the cacao tree for three decades. For example, a chocolate with a higher or lower melting point would be useful for production of chocolate with specific textures and specialty applications.
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