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Science Finally Uncovers Coffee’s Genetic Code

Scientists have finally managed to sequence the coffee bean genome, a significant technical breakthrough that, as well as giving us new insights into one of our favourite drinks, opens the door to genetic engineering.

Around sixty international scientists and researchers worked on the project to pinpoint all the genes that make up the Robusta coffee bean, the variety that makes up around 35 percent of the world’s coffee consumption. Other groups of researchers are still working on sequencing the more complex Arabica variety, which contains approximately twice the amount of genetic information as Robusta.

An unexpected discovery was made by the team in the process, however. The Robusta bean’s method of producing caffeine is completely different to the method used by the cocoa bean, implying that the two don’t have a common ancestor. It seems that pollinators like bees are more drawn to coffee plants than some other caffeine-bearing species, and it is the caffeine that draws these pollinators to keep coming back, ensuring the survival of the species. All clever stuff.

So what’s the point in sequencing the Robusta genome you may be asking? One reason is that if we know how the plants produces its’ caffeine in the first place, it could be possible to create a genetically modified bean containing no caffeine. This would mean that coffee beans wouldn’t have to go through the decaffeination process at all, they could just be grown to produce no caffeine, a bit like producing seedless grapes.

Of course, the very thought of growing GM coffee beans is bound to be unpopular with some, proven by the fact that a number of GMO coffee crops designed to be pest-resistant have already been vandalised or even destroyed in South America and Hawaii. However, the opposite argument is that genetically modified coffee bean crops, together with other plant-breeding technology may be the only realistic way for us to continue producing the volumes we need. Global warming, fungus and pests are causing increasing problems in some parts of the world, and diminishing crops in some parts of the world together with an expected continuation of the growth in consumption could ultimately lead to a shortage and therefore an increase in prices.

Starbucks (SBUX), Nestle (NESN:VX) and others are already taking precautions against such an eventuality, according to a recent article in Bloomberg Business Week. They have been involved in developing hardier varieties that are more resistant to pests and climatic extremes, and are aiming to distribute over 200 million plantlets to coffee growing regions within the next 6 years.

World Coffee Research is now attempting to decode the genome of nearly 1000 Arabica samples taken in the 50s and 60s to determine which strains can be crossbred to produce the hardiest plants. The hope is that the project with lead to the production of Arabica coffee plants that are more resistant to pests, rust, worms and disease and generate a yield of quality coffee beans without the risks of a failed crop.

So the sequencing of the Robusta genetic code is the first step in this process, as it’s a more simple type of the same basic plant, and is a huge leap forward in this particular field of research. The World Coffee Research blog post stated that having just half of the Arabica bean’s genome will accelerate their progress in breeding varieties that can withstand climate change and disease better than the crops we currently rely on.

One thing is certain – without the work of our scientists and researchers, we could be running short of coffee in the not-so-distant future. Not a future that bears thinking about!


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