The genetic sequence of the coffee plant, Robusta, has been deciphered by an international team of scientists. Robusta accounts for about one-third of the coffee consumed worldwide.
By laying bare the plant’s genetic building blocks, researchers will be able to improve breeding as well as genetically modify it.
Most surprising to geneticists was discovering the genes for caffeine.
Scientists have speculated the plant evolved a mechanism for producing caffeine to lure insect pollinators, just as people can get addicted to coffee. It’s also been thought that caffeine, which can be toxic, is a defense against leaf-destroying insects.
The researchers determined that coffee's caffeine genes are not related to the genes responsible for caffeine in the cacao tree, the source of chocolate. That they developed separately indicates that caffeine is a valuable evolutionary asset.
Having mapped the coffee plant’s genome, researchers say they could potentially make plants resistant to climate change and eliminate caffeine in coffee, producing a better tasting brew for those who only drink the decaffeinated variety.
It's estimated that 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day, making it the principal agricultural crop in many tropical countries.
The genetic blueprint of the coffee plant Robusta is published in the journal Science.