The genetic code of the coffee plant is made up of tens of millions of genes. Scientists in Brazil have recently completed mapping out 200,000 of these genes, allowing them to identify genetic conditions which could allow them to eventually alter a plant’s characteristics such as its taste, its yield and its ability to resist disease. The researchers analysed two species of coffee plant – Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, which are the two most commercially valuable coffee types. Coffea liberica, which has relatively little commercial value, was also examined.
The gene sequences in C. arabica and C. canephora were about 50% different from each other. C. canephora is much more resistant to disease and insect damage than C. arabica, and the difference in genes may be the key to developing hardier Arabica varieties.
Differences in genes were also found in varieties within the Arabica species, leading researchers to speculate that they can develop better tasting coffee varieties.
Now that the basic gene mapping has been completed, the next task is to create a database of coffee varieties and species. This will allow researchers to select plants which are disease and drought resistant. These plants can be used to create hybrids which combine the best qualities found in a number of plants.
Scientists also wish to ensure that the genetic diversity of coffee is preserved for the future. Genetic material from existing commercial or wild coffee could contain the keys for tastier and hardier coffee varieties.
Brazil, the country that funded the coffee genome project, will not release the research for at least another two years. During this time, Brazil hopes to become a world leader in developing new coffees, at which point it will make its genetic research available to the worldwide scientific community.
Brazil hopes to produce a “super coffee”, not through genetically altering coffee plant cells, but through grafting and/or cross-pollination. It will not use genetic modification as a means of developing new plants. In fact, the Brazilian government has banned the sale and planting of all genetically modified crops.
One of Brazil's aims in mapping out the genome of the coffee plant is to produce coffee which is resistant to climate change. Coffee requires mean temperatures of between 18° and 22° Celsius, and is severely affected by extreme temperatures. If the temperature becomes too hot or too cold when the coffee plants are in bloom, the quality of the coffee is affected and at least part of the crop will be destroyed.
Brazil is particularly concerned about developing hardier types of coffee in light of global warming. If temperatures rise by only 3° in the next 50 years, Brazil could lose a large percentage of its current coffee plantations. Coffee is one of the most important cash crops for Brazil, so anything that affects its ability to export coffee would have serious economic consequences.
Genetic research in coffee will also benefit coffee consumers. Thanks to Brazil's coffee genome project, coffee lovers can expect new and tastier varieties to appear on the market in the near future.
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