A consortium of scientists announced in Science that they’ve sequenced the coffee genome for the first time. By determining all of the genes that make up robusta coffee, a plant variety that accounts for about one-third of the world’s consumption, they’ve opened the door to better breeding practices and even genetic engineering.
Some members of the group are continuing on to sequence arabica coffee, which produces the world’s fancier varieties of coffee bean. Since arabica is a hybrid of robusta and another variety of coffee plant, it has a duplicated genome. With twice as much genetic information to sift through, Victor Albert, the lead author and a professor of biological sciences at the University at Buffalo, said, this becomes “a much more complicated affair.”
“When we compared the coffee to several other species, we saw a huge enrichment in disease-resistant genes,” Albert said. “Those can now be rapidly explored in more detail, and could be of use in both coffee breeding and in the molecular modification of coffee.”
The obvious route, he said, would be to make coffee crops more resilient to climate change and increased pest problems. But his team’s work on coffee’s caffeine-producing enzymes could also help take the buzz out of your brew.
“This might make it possible to knock off caffeine production in a variety of coffee plant,” Albert said, “So to make decaff coffee, you wouldn’t have to go through the process of extracting the caffeine. You could just grow coffee beans that don’t make it at all.”
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