Tech by VICE

Now That We Know Coffee's Genome, Your Morning Buzz Will Be Genetically Modified

Knowing coffee's genome will allow scientists to make new specialty coffee strains.

by Jason Koebler
Sep 4 2014, 9:50pm

Image: Author

Every year, some $15 billion worth of coffee is exported, mainly from developing countries around the world. Meanwhile, this random species of sea sponge is, economically, currently worth just about nothing. Guess which one had never had its genome sequenced?

I don't normally like comparing my angiosperms to porifera, but, in a world where you can get a completed genome for a couple hundred bucks, it seems absurd that, until today, a completed genome of one of the world's most economically important crops didn't exist. But we've got one now, and the completed coffee genome could change everything about how coffee is made.

Despite all of the money coffee brings in, it's largely considered an orphan crop, meaning that very little research about the arabica coffee plant (or robusta, arabica's inferior-tasting cousin, which has been sequenced here) has ever been done. That's due, in part, to the fact that wealthy countries generally consume coffee, but don't produce it. 

There is a surprising lack of genetics-themed latte art on the internet. Image: Cristian Bortes/Flickr

That neglect is part of the reason why coffee has seen dwindling genetic diversity (observed through its physical traits) in much of the world: Inbreeding, for lack of a better term, has led to a crop that's extremely susceptible to small changes in climate, as well as to a parasite known as coffee rust, which has wiped out huge parts of the crop in Central America in recent years.

The good news here is that people have recognized that simply breeding tons of identical coffee plants without thinking about things like genetic diversity is bound to result in disaster. 

In recent years, tons of money has been poured into coffee research centers around the world (including one that I visited in Colombia), and a few American universities have established centers dedicated to studying the crop.

Image: David Joyce/Flickr

This is all to say that today's paper, published in Science, may well be a turning point for coffee, if it helps fuel more research and development.

"The danger to the coffee crop should provide an incentive for all stakeholders to initiate international collaborations in genomic-assisted breeding projects and germ plasm conservation with poor, coffee-exporting countries," Dani Zamir, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics, wrote in Science. 

Once scientists have a genome, they also have a roadmap for making small genetic modifications that could make coffee more (or less) caffeinated, taste less bitter, or make the plant more hardy (or yield more fruit). We've been doing this with fruits and vegetables here in the United States for years, and—the genetically-modified organisms debate aside—have had extreme success with it.

It may not happen right away, but soon enough, your local coffee shop is likely going to start serving coffee that's been genetically modified to taste and make you feel exactly the way you want it to—or, at the very least, survive an evolving climate.