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USA scientists develop cocoa disease cures.

SCIENTISTS have gathered in Quebec City, Canada, to discuss ways of fighting plant diseases that threaten to destroy cocoa production. At the Cacao Diseases: Important Threats to Chocolate Production Worldwide symposium members of the American Phytopathological Society, Canadian Phytopathological Society, and the Mycological Society of America listened to experts warn of the grave threat to cocoa plants posed by three deadly diseases: black pod, frosty pod, and witches' broom.

Ahead of the meeting, Randy Ploetz, plant pathology professor at the University of Florida, warned that if witches' broom, today primarily found in South America, were to spread to Africa where almost 70% of production occurs, the chocolate industry would be devastated. "In this region, either disease could reduce yields by an additional one million more metric tons per year," he said.

In less than 10 years, witches' broom has reduced production of cocoa beans in the Bahia region of Brazil by 75%.

Spread by spores of a fungus (Crinipellis perniciosa), the disease infects plants on which it produces mushrooms during rainy periods. Controlling the disease with pesticides is difficult because chemical sprays are often not effective in the tropical, heavy-rain conditions where cacao usually thrives.

Mr Ploetz said the only way he can envisage saving the plants is to genetically create plants that are disease resistant, replacing the more vulnerable plants with these new versions. Scientists are collecting germplasm samples of cacao trees from all parts of the world that seem immune to disease and cross-pollinate them with other trees in the lab.

After the cross is made, it takes about eight months to produce a seedling. From seedling to first harvest can take five years.

These new naturally bred alternatives will take some time before they will be in place and productive.

Mr Ploetz expects a waiting period of 10 years. "Our focus is to try to prevent the diseases from reaching there and when and if they do to replace impacted plants with a resilience to diseases that will produce high yields of high quality chocolate," he said.

Meanwhile, Agricultural Research Service scientists in the US have found that certain fungal endophytes or plant parasites that install themselves in nooks and crannies of plants keep disease-causing microbes at bay while not causing any harm to the plants.

Their research has shown that a new endophyte found in Ecuador is effective at running off the frosty pod rot pathogen. If it continues to show positive results it could be applied to cacao tree flowers to help shield the plant and its precious beans from fungal attack.

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Author:Dobie, Monica
Publication:International News
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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