New plant discoveries could lead to climate-proof chocolate

Theobroma globosum. Credit: Kew Bulletin (2024).

Scientists have discovered three new plant species that are closely related to the tree from which chocolate is made.

This exciting find could lead to the development of “climate-proof” chocolate.

The research has been published in the journal Kew Bulletin.

The new species were found in the rainforests of South America and are close relatives of Theobroma cacao, the tree that produces cocoa beans.

These beans are crucial for making chocolate and other products.

The discovery was made by a team of scientists from University College Cork (UCC), the University of São Paulo, and the New York Botanical Garden.

Dr. James Richardson, a member of UCC’s School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences (BEES) and the Environmental Research Institute, explained the significance of their find.

“These new species were discovered by studying specimens in herbaria. This shows the importance of maintaining natural history collections, as many more species remain to be discovered.”

The team found three new species within the section Herrania: T. globosum, T. nervosum, and T. schultesii. These plants are closely related to Theobroma cacao, which is vital for chocolate production. Dr. Richardson emphasized that their discovery highlights how much more work is needed to catalog Earth’s vast biodiversity.

The discovery of these new species could lead to the development of more climate-resilient cacao trees. This would help sustain the production of chocolate and other cacao-based products. “Cacao prices have tripled recently due to low production caused by a prolonged drought in West Africa, the largest cacao-producing region,” Dr. Richardson said.

“Finding new species expands the genetic resources available to us. This might allow us to produce drought-tolerant or disease-resistant cacao trees.”

The team conducted detailed examinations of the leaves, flowers, and fruits of these new species. They collaborated with multiple botanical institutions to achieve their discovery. This research underscores the importance of studying and preserving plant specimens, as many unknown species are still waiting to be found.

In summary, the discovery of these three new plant species could have a significant impact on the future of chocolate production.

By potentially developing more resilient cacao trees, we can help ensure a stable supply of chocolate despite changing climate conditions. This find also highlights the vast amount of undiscovered biodiversity on our planet and the importance of continued research in this field.