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Chocolate Frosty Pod Rot and You

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Coffee drinkers recoiled in horror when news that their favorite plant had come under serious attack by a fungus called rust this year. The news came close on the heels of news that the bacterial disease huanglongbing is devastating the Florida citrus industry, driving up prices and threatening quality. As a faithful o.j. drinker, I was not happy to hear about this myself. But there’s one crop for which I’ve long dreaded hearing similar news: Theobroma cacao, bringer of chocolate. That day, sadly, has come.

This week I am at the American Phytopathological Society/Mycological Society of America joint meeting in Austin, Texas, scouting for story and blog post ideas and reconnecting with my former teachers and classmates from Cornell. There is indeed a lot of talk here about huanglongbing and the scurrilous psyllids who spread it. But to my horror, I discovered in the poster session that there is also a disease (actually, two or three) of cacao well-poised to harm the chocolate industry: frosty pod rot of cacao. Here it is:

These are cocoa pods on the cacao tree. Inside are the beans/seeds/nibs that get roasted to make cocoa and chocolate. These pods, however, are never going to see the inside of a Hershey's factory. From Alme and Phillips-Mora 2005. Click image for source.

Let’s first take a moment to savor this name. Frosty Pod Rot is one of the best I’ve seen. It starts out like an obnoxiously sweet breakfast cereal (and the effect is only heightened if you add “chocolate” to the front) and ends in a disgusting mass of fungi and macerated plant tissue. Unlike the human public health community, which has abandoned such eloquent and haunting names as “consumption”, “malaria”, “yellow fever” and “whooping cough” in favor of horrible acronym soups like SARS, AIDS, and MERS, plant pathologists have kept up the tradition of descriptive disease naming. I am a huge fan. Most are more straightforward: black leg of canola, or late blight of potato (cause of the Irish Potato Famine), for instance. But we also have huanglongbing (literally, “yellow dragon disease”), fire blight, powdery mildew, sooty mold, witches’ broom, or as I learned this week, the new disease “funky flower” of cranberry (whose causal pathogen is still unidentified, but early evidence indicates may be a virus). Keep up the good work, plant pathologists.

Frosty pod rot — both the disease and its handle — have been with us for a long time. It made its debut in the late or possibly early part of the 19th century. The fungus eats the inside and outside of cocoa pods and leaves them a total loss. Here’s a close-up:

Conidia (asexual spores) and filaments of Monilophthora roreri, the fungus that causes frosty pod rot. Note the chains in which the simple spores are produced. Creative Commons Ronnydv10. Click image for license and source.

For a long time frosty pod rot was relatively confined to Colombia, Ecuador, and western Venezuela in northwest South America. Since the 1950s, it has spread throughout South and Central America, reaching Panama in 1956, Costa Rica in 1978, Nicaragua in 1980, Peru  in 1988, Honduras in 1997, Guatemala in 2002, Belize in 2004, and Mexico in 2005. It can cause growers to abandon entire cacao plantations, as losses in infected groves can near 100%

Frosty pod rot, along with its close relative witch’s broom of cacao, together have devastated cacao-farming regions in these countries, and “are responsible for the plummet in tropical American cocoa production,” according to a 2005 article in Mycologia. That sounds bad. At least one scientist, according to the authors of the Mycologia article, believes that M. roreri is “still in an invasive phase … and is poised to devastate already crippled production in Bolivia and Brazil, once it arrives in those countries.” Apparently, that is still true in 2013, as the poster that I discovered this pathogen on stated that frosty pod rot is still a “serious threat” to cacao plantations in Bolivia and Brazil, and even West Africa.

Plant pathologists don’t just exist to give plant diseases kick-ass names — they also exist to help farmers stay in business, keep food affordable for the rest of us, and to prevent catastrophes like famine or the functional loss of entire crop species or cultivars (see the Gros Michel banana and Panama Disease for a premier example). Clearly, they also exist to keep us all well supplied with chocolate. As much as I love frosty pod rot the concept, I do not love frosty pod rot the disease. Keep fighting the good fight, plant pathologists, and let’s hope the day that frosty pod rot hits the front page of the New York Times is still a long way off — or never comes.

Reference

Aime M.C. & Phillips-Mora W. (2005). The causal agents of witches’ broom and frosty pod rot of cacao (chocolate, Theobroma cacao) form a new lineage of Marasmiaceae, Mycologia, 97 (5) 1012-1022. DOI:

Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ.
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Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ganymedeharrogate 4:44 pm 08/15/2013

    The first and third paragraphs of this article are irrelevant fillers attempting to liven it up. The real science about the spread of this disease, its economic, social and physiological effects on cocoa crops, farmers and consumers are shrouded in unnecessary vernacular and over-blown language like “kick-ass”. Basing such an article on a single 8 year old academic paper shows the author’s blatant lack of research into this subject when a quick google search reveals many relevant papers like:

    Frosty pod of cacao: A disease with a limited geographic range but unlimited potential for damage
    W Phillips-Mora, MJ Wilkinson – Phytopathology, 2007 – Am Phytopath Society
    and:
    Cacao Diseases: Important Threats to Chocolate Production Worldwide
    Randy C. Ploetz
    Phytopathology Dec 2007, Volume 97, Number 12: 1634-1639
    Abstract | PDF Print (318 KB) | PDF with Links (342 KB) |
    and:
    Cacao Diseases—The Trilogy Revisited
    Harry C. Evans
    Phytopathology Dec 2007, Volume 97, Number 12: 1640-1643
    Abstract | PDF Print (80 KB) | PDF with Links (95 KB)
    for example.
    This kind of sensationalist, academically shallow treatment of serious scientific topics devalues the power, influence and public respect for science, technology and engineering. It also does not do justice to the publication’s title: SCIENTIFIC American.
    J Hunniman, Harrogate UK 15/8/13

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 9:52 am 08/16/2013

    With all due respect, this is a blog post, not a review article or magazine feature story. Scientific American’s Blog Network, of which I am part, is the venue in which we try to reach out to the public in a style that is much more casual than the print magazine or online news sections. Blog posts are written from a personal perspective and are almost never meant to be comprehensive scientific reviews, as you will see if you browse the rest of the blogs in our network. And in my personal opinion, if we do not reach out to the general public in lively, engaging language, they will not listen.

    Link to this
  3. 3. David Cummings 10:30 am 08/16/2013

    Excellent post, Jennifer, and I agree with you about the superiority of descriptive naming… though maybe one of the reasons we have switched to acronyms in human diseases is to prevent name-calling of the sufferers of those diseases. Just a thought.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 11:02 am 08/16/2013

    Thanks, David. I definitely take your point, and I thought about that when writing this post. Although the tone is light-hearted, I don’t mean to make light of the suffering of people affected by these diseases. And I *certainly* don’t want to go back to the days when people were referred to with names like “consumptive”. But there is definitely something about the terms like “influenza” or “yellow fever” that seems better to me than telling someone they have something super clinical-sounding like “MERS”.

    Link to this
  5. 5. David Cummings 12:37 pm 08/16/2013

    I agree. In an effort to sound clinical we end up sounding really, really clinical!

    Link to this
  6. 6. janelj54 3:42 pm 08/16/2013

    I enjoyed your post but I don’t expect the blog posts to be dry, technical, impeccably researched and cited pieces. If I want more information, I have internet at my fingertips.
    I too like to explore the lighter side of unpleasant topics now and then. Some of my favorites plant disease names are stinking smut, brown cubical butt rot, and black fingers of death.

    Link to this

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