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A CURE FOR COCOA?

April 22, 2013

A CURE FOR COCOA?

Frustrated farmers may need look no further than the cocoa tree itself for a treatment. Luis and colleagues at STRI discovered that some endophytes

Luis Mejía peers into the understory and points at withered shoots on a cocoa tree. “Witches', broom,” he says, uttering two words that hexed a multibillion-dollar industry. Moniliophthora perniciosa decimated farms in Brazil in the 1990s, transforming the country from a top exporter into an importer of chocolate',s primary ingredient. The pernicious fungus still eludes control throughout South America, and reaches the east bank of the Panama Canal where Luis studies the disease.

Frustrated farmers may need look no further than the cocoa tree itself for a treatment. Luis and colleagues at STRI discovered that some endophytes - microorganisms that live in plant tissues - hinder pathogen growth. Luis, originally from Panama City',s Santa Ana neighborhood and now a Tupper Fellow, developed the techniques used to isolate endophytes and inoculate cocoa trees for that landmark research. Now Luis is trying to untangle the mechanics of how endophytes confer cacao with fungus-fighting powers.

Luis, who earned a Ph.D. at Rutgers, found certain cocoa genes become more active when the plant is inoculated with the common endophyte Colletotrichum tropicale. This discovery could lead to disease-resistant cocoa trees, with implications for the small farmers that are the backbone of the chocolate business. “Luis', work is helping understand one of the ways in which biodiversity can enhance agricultural sustainability,” says STRI staff scientist Allen Herre.

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