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Scientists uncover the DNA of the coffee bean

In our last blog post we took a look at how climate change is affecting coffee production and the role global warming is playing in the future of the coffee crop. The steady increase in temperature across the globe has played havoc with the coffee industry and is set to continue unless we can reverse the trend. Yields are down, prices are up and the warmer climate has allowed disease to become more widespread.

It was therefore encouraging to read in the Financial Times this week that scientists have succeeded in sequencing the DNA from a coffee bean. Understanding the genetic make-up of the coffee bean has the potential to increase coffee yields and their resistance to disease. The scientists studied the species Coffea canephora, better known as Robusta. It accounts for around 30% of the world’s coffee production and as many of you will know is common in instant coffee.

So this week we thought we’d take a look at the more optimistic aspects of the coffee industry and how this research could be applied to coffee farmers.
One area where these break through can be used to good affect is in Indonesia. Currently the 4th largest producer of coffee, Indonesia has had difficulties over recent years in increasing or even maintaining its coffee production over recent years. Indonesia
• Indonesia’s production is forecast to drop 600,000 bags to 8.9 million. 
• Exports are forecast to decline 600,000 bags to 5.4 million on less available supplies.
• Java and Sumatra received as much as 30 inches of rain in the past month, a 200% to 300% above average, increasing the risk of crop disease (February 2014) 
At a time when both the population and demand for coffee is increasing, the unusual and more unpredictable weather patterns are playing havoc with production levels.

The main issue throughout Indonesia is that they use seed reproduction for the vast majority of their coffee farms (growing coffee plants by using seeds). The main disadvantage with this process is that every coffee plant will be different and unique. Just as every human has different levels of resistance to disease, levels of health, strength and genetic characteristics, so will coffee plants who are grown from using seed reproduction. The genetic diversity naturally ensures that some will be healthy and strong; while others will be more susceptible to disease and illness.
The alternative and much more efficient process is something called vegetative reproduction, which is essentially the cloning of plants. The simplest form of vegetative reproduction is “cutting”. You take a piece of the parent plant and re-grow it in a suitable environment. Other techniques include grafting, budding, girdling, layering and tissue culture. If you repeat this process over and over you will eventually end up with a farm of genetically identical, high yielding coffee plants (due to your initial selection) that are healthy and strong.

One particular mode of vegetative reproduction is somatic embryogenesis or synthetic seed technology. It can be achieved by taking cells from a plant that aren’t usually associated with the development of embryos, and then used to clone plants that are more resistant to viruses and disease.

While this is great in theory, problems can arise with the amount of time it takes to see if your experimentation has yielded positive results. Coffee takes 3-4 years to generate a crop, then several more years before average yields can be measured. Overall 10 years may have to pass before you can determine if that specific genetic variety of plant is effective to use.

The DNA research can ultimately speed up this process by understanding which genes are important for high yields vs. other environmental factors such as nutrients, temperature, growth hormones and rain. Without a genome, advanced research on coffee production is extremely difficult and time consuming.

With coffee being responsible for the livelihood of so many people across the world, the research is incredibly important to ensure more efficient farming methods are found, helping to secure the crop for local farmers and the surrounding communities.