Science Cracks Coffee's Genetic Code. Up Next: Frankencoffee

Scientists have managed to sequence the java genome, a breakthrough that brings new insights into the venerated bean while also opening the door to genetic engineering.

A group of more than 60 international researchers painstakingly pinpointed all the genes that make up robusta coffee, according to an article published last week in Science, a plant variety that accounts for roughly one-third of the world’s coffee consumption. Various groups are still working on sequencing the fancier, more delicious arabica strand, which contains about twice as much genetic information.

One surprising discovery: Coffee’s mode of producing caffeine is quite different from that of its cousin, cocoa, indicating that the two plants don’t share a common ancestor. There are several reasons why unrelated plants might evolve to produce the addictive substance we love so much. “Bugs don’t chew on the coffee plant leaves because they don’t like the caffeine, but pollinators like bees do,” Victor Albert, an evolutionary biologist  at the University of Buffalo and one of the study’s authors, told the Associated Press. “So pollinators come back for more—just like we do for our cups of coffee.”

Knowing how robusta produces caffeine may further scientific efforts to create a genetically-modified decaf bean. “You wouldn’t have to go through the process of extracting the caffeine,” says Albert. “You could just grow coffee beans that don’t make it at all.”

Coffee purists have long despised the notion of frankenbeans. In 2005, vandals destroyed efforts to grow pest-resistant GMO coffee in French Guiana, hacking down all the scientists’ transgenic trees. In 2008, Kona coffee farmers in Hawaii successfully lobbied to ban the cultivation of GMO crops, saying the presence of frankenbeans would damage their reputation and ability to charge a premium.
Yet genetic modification and plant-breeding technologies might be the best hope for fending off a looming Coffee Apocalypse caused by global warming, pests, and fungus. Starbucks, along with additional companies and researchers, is already taking action, wrote Bryan Gruley and Leslie Patton in Bloomberg Businessweek:

Nestlé, among other companies, has been developing hardier varieties and has pledged to distribute 220 million plantlets to farmers by 2020. In a lab at Cornell University, World Coffee Research is now sequencing the DNA of about 1,000 Ethiopian strains collected during the 1950s and 1960s. The sequencing is designed to determine the most genetically diverse 20 to 30 arabica strains that can then be crossbred and propagated. The hope is to generate seeds that will resist not only rust but worms, bacteria, and other threats, while yielding abundant cherries that produce a delicious cup.

Success in sequencing robusta will give these scientists a leg up because arabica is a hybrid of robusta and various other coffee plants. According to a recent World Coffee Research blog post: “Just having >50% of the Arabica genome through knowing the full sequence of the canephora genome is going to help us accelerate our progress at breeding higher quality, rust resistant varieties that can withstand greater effects of climate change.”

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