New genome sequencing reveals coffee’s future

Upon first glance, the large bushy plant with branches filled with tiny, jasmine-scented flowers appear to be something even the pickiest gardener would welcome.  These pure white flowers are highly fragrant and beautiful, but are a side-effect to the true commodity of this particular plant, the reddish-purple berries that come after the flowers have disappeared.  The deep crimson is not a perfectly ripe cherry, but holds one of the biggest cash crops in the world: the coffee bean.

Coffee plants in the mountains of Mexico

While the beautiful plants promising coffee paint a beautiful picture of serene gardening, the coffee plant is in trouble.  Climate change, viruses, and fungi are all taking a huge financial toll on coffee production, making the recent coffee genome sequencing even more essential to keep this industry percolating.

“Coffee rust” fungus, May 2014

Understanding the coffee genome gives promise to battling diseases currently devastating coffee crops in Hawaii as well as the fungal infections effecting coffee plants in Central America (picture above).  These diseases are hurting farmers and coffee production, so the newly sequenced genome could be an important first step to controlling these diseases and stabilizing coffee agriculture.

Many other plant genomes – from tobacco to tomatoes –have been sequenced in order to allow researchers greater tools to both manipulate plants and understand their vulnerabilities.  In addition to new agriculture applications, genome sequencing gives the ability to manipulate coffee at the genetic level.  Could genetic alterations be the key to saving the much-loved plant?

While efforts to save coffee from climate change, viruses, and other threats seem like it would be universally supported, this may not be the case.  Public opinion can often make or break any attempted changes to an established norm and with recent unpopularity of any genetic alterations of food products, consumers may reject changing coffee.

According to Kim Elena Ionescu, coffee buyer and sustainability manager at Counter Culture Coffee, consumers could be faced with a difficult decision.  “I think consumers are really confused about what genetic modification means. Most of them will say they don’t want it, but if they’re confronted with the alternatives, I think it will lead to some uncomfortable realizations.”

Indeed, according to Ionescu, consumers are by far more concerned with cost and flavor of their coffee than any other single trait, including organic, shade-grown, or any genetic alterations.  While the sensationalist idea of creating “super coffee” may get consumers’ attention, there are other interesting findings about coffee that the genome sequencing revealed.

Conclusions from the newly-published research reveal a different evolutionary path of caffeine in coffee from caffeine in other plants like chocolate and tea, demonstrating a delicious example of convergent evolution.  Since human physiology responds to caffeine so well, it’s no wonder that caffeine is humanity’s favorite drug and coffee the most popular way to consume it.

Genome sequencing showed that the genes which control caffeine production are more similar to other coffee genes than to other caffeine producing genes in other plants.  Another unique quality of the caffeine in coffee is the increased presence of specific enzymes that are involved in caffeine production.  With these new revelations about caffeine, this could even have implications with manipulating coffee’s caffeine content.

“The coffee genome helps us understand what’s exciting about coffee — other than that it wakes me up in the morning,” Victor Albert, professor of biological sciences at University of Buffalo and principal author on the story stated. “By looking at which families of genes expanded in the plant, and the relationship between the genome structure of coffee and other species, we were able to learn about coffee’s independent pathway in evolution, including — excitingly — the story of caffeine.”

While the evolutionary purpose of caffeine remains undiscovered, the new research gives opportunities to understand the evolution of one of the world’s favorite plants.  One potential exciting application of the new information about caffeine is the possibility for a new way of decaffeinating coffee.  The process of decaffeination is a chemical process that often impacts flavor as well as caffeine and being able to create a naturally caffeine-free coffee bean could be a lucrative and popular product.

Decaf: to avoid this fate

From the first gurgle of brewing and faint whiff of a slightly bitter and rich aroma, coffee hits many more senses than just taste.  Perhaps this all-encompassing sensory immersion is one of the many reasons why coffee inspires such love in so many people.  However, the overwhelming popularity of coffee has not been without its drawbacks.  From overproduction leading to a loss of genetic diversity (unfortunately common in food plants) to the exploitation of labor of poor minorities that grow much of the world’s coffee, our love of coffee can be detrimental.  Despite the negatives of coffee production and challenges like disease and climate change negatively impacting coffee, sequencing the coffee genome provides a glimmer of hope to the sustainable future of coffee.

While misinformation and lack of scientific knowledge often convince consumers that genetic alterations of food are always negative, coffee could benefit from genetic manipulation if it is to survive in the future.  As Ionescu poignantly points out, “…what if genetic modification led to coffee tasting better, growing in environmentally sensitive areas without the need for chemical fertilizers or doubling income and halving risk for poor farmers? It will have to be a nuanced conversation to adequately encompass the complex realities of making coffee sustainable (and I mean sustainable on the most basic level of farmable, or economically viable).”

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