The newest buzz in coffee science

Assumption College Undergraduate

bachelors in biology studentsThe science of the processes of plants and genetics and mutations is a growing field in Biology. Assumption College offers Biology courses in topics like Botany and Organic Evolution – how plants such as coffee have evolved organically.

In the United States, $40 billion a year is spent on coffee and the average American drinks more than three cups a day. Americans and those across the world love coffee—a fact that several scientists knew when they set out to map its DNA.

New research published in the journal Science, cracks the genome for the plant Coffea canephora—Robusta Coffee—which accounts for a third of the world’s coffee.

This research has served as basis for three collaborating theories to why the caffeine in the coffee plant developed:

  1. It attracts pollinators who eat the coffee tree’s berries,– aiding in reproduction.
  2. It wards off the competition.  The leaves fall to the ground and—also being rich in caffeine—leach into the soil, inhibiting germination of other seeds and outcompeting neighboring plants.
  3. It acts as a defense mechanism, keeping herbivores from eating the leaves because they’re especially potent, thus, keeping the plant healthy.

Lining out the genome helps us see how coffee’s caffeine enzymes developed.

Coffee’s ingredient of caffeine is the result of millions of years of development of a group of enzymes called N-methyltransferases, actually found in all plants. In coffee, the gene for N-methyltransferases mutated, changed its behavior and then duplicated the mutated gene.  Caffeine in other plants, like tea and cacao, was created by the same N-methyltransferases gene mutation.

So what does this mean for java aficionados everywhere? Well, the research could lead to genetic engineering of coffee plants that puts in more of the aromatic and flavorful enzymes we love, takes out the parts that could be carcinogenic and even lead to the production of a bean with no caffeine. (The current process of decaffeinating coffee involves taking out the caffeine after bean harvesting.)

Students who major in Biology at Assumption have exciting opportunities to  conduct their own research or partner with science faculty and perform laboratory research right on campus. The College’s many research opportunities are but one example of how Assumption is lighting the way in science and research.

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