Lured by the sweet taste of chocolate, IBM hopes to use the cocoa plant as an avenue to improve its business prospects in the emerging economies of Africa.
The company views Africa as a growing region, where it recently invested US$120 million to build the region's infrastructure over two years. It also opened a cloud-computing center in Johannesburg this week, the first such center in Africa.
The company's scientists are now going after the heart of Africa's economic problems, launching an effort to crack the genome of cocoa, a plant that forms the livelihood for many people, especially in parts of West Africa. The scientists are trying to understand the genetic makeup of the cocoa genome that could make it more resistant to droughts and pests, which could lead to a steady crop and contribute to Africa's economies.
"Cocoa is an important crop in Africa. If you can increase the yield, you generate more product and you can increase the income of farmers," said Isidore Rigoutsos, manager of the bioinformatics and pattern discovery group at IBM Research.
Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon were the top producers of cocoa in Africa in 2007, according to the World Cocoa Foundation.
IBM is trying to help humanity, which is not a bad thing, but it may also be trying to market its Blue Gene supercomputer through this effort, said Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Analytics.
"There is always an attempt by computer manufacturers to prove that they are the bigger, badder computer maker on the block. Blue Gene is a monster in doing these 'what-if' calculations," Clabby said.
IBM is also following the money, Clabby said. It is looking to grow in emerging markets and expects a long-term return on investment by putting applied computing resources in the region, Clabby said.
Africa supplies about 70 percent of the world's cocoa, and understanding the genome could help improve the crop, which could help build Africa's economies, Rigoutsos said. Africa's emerging economies represent a big business opportunity for IBM, and the company is investing heavily to build the region's infrastructure, an IBM spokeswoman said.
While mapping the cocoa genome is easy, the challenge is to understand the genome patterns that give the crop its properties, like flavor and resistance to pests, Rigoutsos said.
IBM can map the cocoa genome -- which contains about 400 million DNA bases -- in a few months. After that, it hopes to use data-mining techniques to gather data subsets that could be used to understand and assign properties, Rigoutsos said.
Understanding the properties may take years, just like the human genome, Rigoutsos said
The human genome has about 3 billion DNA bases, eight times larger than the cocoa genome, Rigoutsos said. Though mapping the entire human genome was a challenge, defining a human's properties by understanding the data subsets is turning out to be a larger challenge.
"The question is to make sense of what the letters are telling you. The more data you start with is better. Since you don't have a model to start, you start with a lot of observable data. We may be dealing with ... thousands of varieties of cocoa," Rigoutsos said.
The project, done with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. chocolate manufacturer Mars, will last five years.
Beyond building IBM in Africa, the project is bringing the use of software and biotechnology together, Rigoutsos said. It will help develop generic data-mining and analysis techniques that could be applied to map other genomes.
Earlier projects like the discovery of the human genome had limited computational capability and scientists didn't have enough technological knowledge, Rigoutsos said. Faster hardware and more cross-trained scientists familiar with technologies like data mining should make it quicker for IBM to achieve its goals in the project.