CRISPR FEATURE Myeong-Je Cho looking at wheat
Innovative Genomics Institute / University of California at Berkeley
  • Cacao plants are slated to disappear by as early as 2050 thanks to warmer temperatures and dryer weather conditions.
  • Scientists at the University of California are teaming up with Mars company to try to save the crop before it’s too late.
  • They’re exploring the possibility of using the gene-editing technology CRISPR to make crops that can survive the new challenges.

Beyond the glittery glass-and-sandstone walls of the University of California’s new biosciences building, rows of tiny green cacao seedlings in refrigerated greenhouses await judgment day.

Under the watchful eye of Myeong-Je Cho, the director of plant genomics at an institute that’s working with food and candy company Mars, the plants will be transformed. If all goes well, these tiny seedlings will soon be capable of surviving — and thriving — in the dryer, warmer climate that is sending chills through the spines of farmers across the globe.

It’s all thanks to a new technology called CRISPR, which allows for tiny, precise tweaks to DNA that were never possible before. These tweaks are already being used to make crops cheaper and more reliable. But their most important use may be in the developing world, where many of the plants that people rely on to avoid starvation are threatened by the impacts of climate change, including more pests and a lack of water.

Cacao plants occupy a precarious position on the globe. They can only grow within a narrow strip of rainforested land roughly 20 degrees north and south of the equator, where temperature, rain, and humidity all stay relatively constant throughout the year. Over half of the world’s chocolate now…