Coffee Plants Fight Climate Change With a Genetic Weapon

Scientists from the University of Udine have discovered the genes that make coffee delicious and resilient. The study, titled Coffea arabica, aims to map the genetic secrets of coffee by creating DNA libraries from its leaves and using advanced sequencing methods to piece together its genome. The researchers then compared the genes’ physical locations and predicted gene functions by comparing them to other plant genes. They also compared the DNA of different coffee plants, finding variations that explain the evolution and key traits.

The study revealed two distinct sections within the coffee plant’s genetic makeup, hinting at a tough past where the coffee plant had to fight to survive. It also highlighted how mixing genes (genetic diversity) and breeding with different plants (hybridization) helps coffee plants survive and adapt. One key player is the Timor hybrid, a natural mix of regular coffee (C. arabica) and a sturdier type (C. canephora, aka Robusta).

Hybridization helped regular coffee get valuable new genes, making it more diverse and stronger. The most important gift from the Timor hybrid is its resistance to disease, which means more coffee plants survive, leading to better harvests and a steadier supply of delicious coffee for everyone.

Genetic variation in the plants was also found, which previously were thought to be anomalies. However, this investigation revealed these seemingly random alterations played a key role in the plant’s ability to adjust to different environments and stressors. By understanding its DNA, scientists can even create new coffee varieties that are extra tough.

The lessons from the research go beyond coffee to highlight the critical importance of keeping and using the wide variety of genes found in crops worldwide. With climate change making the earth hotter, habitats disappearing, and fewer types of crops being grown, mixing different varieties and carefully planting diverse crops becomes essential for keeping people fed.

Coffee cultivation plays a significant role in the economies of many countries, with millions of people involved in its farming, processing, and distribution. Coffee plants not only contribute to the global economy but also to cultural practices and social interactions around the world.

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