January 7, 2019, by Lexi Earl

An Interview with Dr David Gopaulchan, Visiting Research Fellow, Future Food Beacon

Dr David Gopaulchan is a postdoctoral researcher in the molecular lab at the Cocoa Research Centre, University of the West Indies. He recently completed four months as a Future Food Beacon Visiting Research Fellow, working with colleagues in Biosciences to sequence over 250 varieties of cocoa bean in order to establish if there are genes involved in Cadmium accumulation in cocoa plants.  He spoke with Lexi Earl about his research, his reasons for coming to the University of Nottingham, and the details of chocolate making. 

How did you become involved in cocoa research?
I always had a passion for genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry. For this reason I pursued my bachelor’s degree followed by a Ph.D. in those fields, at the University of the West Indies. On completing my degrees, I saw an opportunity at the Cocoa Research Centre (CRC). They were looking for someone to DNA fingerprint the International Cocoa Genebank in Trinidad and other cacao germplasm worldwide using SNP markers.

Image Credit: Global Cacao Collection Meeting, October 2014, Trinidad, Ortinola House

What brought you to the University of Nottingham?
Cadmium (Cd), is a major problem for cocoa growers at the moment. It is a heavy metal that can accumulate in plants and be stored in their edible parts. When we consume cadmium contaminated foods, it accumulates in our body and over time can lead to a number of diseases. Cocoa is a known accumulator of cadmium, as the plant absorbs the metal and stores it in roots, shoots and beans. We use cocoa beans to make chocolate, and therefore high levels of cadmium in cocoa beans have become a food safety concern and the reduction of cadmium in the beans to minimize human intake is an important issue. The European Union has developed regulations that set maximum allowable limits for cadmium in chocolates, which will be implemented in January 2019. When implemented, these regulations will negatively affect the export of cocoa beans from Latin America and the Caribbean, which have excessive cadmium due to high quantities of cadmium in the soils. Latin America and the Caribbean are the principal regions producing fine/flavour cocoa and these new regulations will impact on the livelihood of thousands of small-holder cocoa farmers as well as the European chocolate and confectionery sector. Fine/flavour cocoa is different to the bulk cocoa grown in West Africa. Fine/flavour cocoa produces complex flavour profiles in chocolate, and is predominately used in the bean-to-bar and artisan chocolate sector.

My present research involves developing strategies to mitigate cadmium accumulation in cocoa beans so that they will be safe for consumption. The research is focused on exploiting genetic differences between cocoa varieties in absorption and sequestration of cadmium into beans. The CRC is the custodian of the International Cocoa Genebank (ICGT), which has over 2400 cacao varieties, and is regarded as the most diverse cocoa collection in the world. The genetic resources and phenotypic information at CRC are being used to develop a novel genetic solution to the problem of elevated bean cadmium affecting cocoa growing areas in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Professor David Salt, the director of the Future Food Beacon of Excellence, is a leading expert on cadmium accumulation in plants and has a team of experts in the areas of genetics and ionomics that can help me develop solutions to reduce cadmium levels in cocoa. The project utilises the strengths of both institutions: the technical expertise at the Future Food Beacon of Excellence and the genetic resources and phenotypic information at CRC, to develop a novel genetic solution to the problem of elevated bean cadmium. We are sequencing 250 varieties. We are examining the genotype to understand if there are any genetic markers that can be linked to cadmium. Once the markers are identified, we can find the genes that might be responsible for cadmium uptake. If we can identify the genes, we can use that knowledge to develop a DNA test to screen varieties to see if they have the markers for high or low cadmium. We can then select varieties with low cadmium uptake and use them in breeding programmes.

How do you work with farmers to develop solutions to problems like the one with cadmium?
We actively engage farmers and they are involved in the discussions that address the issues the industry faces like elevated cadmium. They form part of the stakeholder groups that help focus attention on tackling these problems. Additionally, the CRC has been working with farmers in developing strategies to mitigate the accumulation of cadmium using soil ameliorants and cultural practices.

Did the research come about because of the new EU restrictions or is it something you were concerned about any way?
It was something that we were concerned with, however, the restrictions forced the industry and research community to act more quickly and invest resources towards developing solutions to reduce cadmium. At CRC, a lot of what we do is influenced by the needs of the chocolate industry and the public, and the quality of beans is a major area of concern.

What are you hoping to do while at UoN?
The DNA sequencing and ionomics facilities at UoN are very impressive, and the researchers are highly trained, friendly and open to sharing information. I am therefore trying to learn as much as I can as we advance the research. I am also trying to network and build connections and improve the collaborative links between the CRC and the Future Food Beacon. I do not see this as a one off project, but rather the beginning of a partnership to address the problems the cocoa industry faces.

What is your long term plan?
I would like to further develop my research skills and experience to support the sustainability of the cocoa sector. This would involve moving cocoa into the modern breeding arena and providing support to the cocoa breeding industry, through the development of molecular markers for a range of important traits.

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