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Coffee genome adapted to climate changes over millennia

Coffee is the fuel that keeps the world running. Whether you prefer a bold espresso or a creamy cappuccino, the chances are that your favorite brew comes from a plant called Coffea arabica. Yet, behind the daily caffeine fix lies an incredible genome story spanning hundreds of thousands of years, continents, and even changing climates.

History of coffee genome

You might not think about it as you sip your morning coffee, but within your cup lies a fascinating genetic story. Scientists at the University of Buffalo (UB) have recently created an incredibly detailed map of the DNA of Arabica coffee. This map, known as a genome, acts like a blueprint for the plant, revealing the complex ancestry of the coffee you enjoy.

“We’ve used genomic information in plants alive today to go back in time and paint the most accurate picture possible of Arabica’s long history, as well as determine how modern cultivated varieties are related to each other,” said study co-author Victor Albert, a professor in the UB Department of Biological Sciences

It turns out that Arabica coffee isn’t the product of a single, isolated lineage. Instead, it’s the result of a natural hybridization event between two different coffee species: Coffea canephora (commonly known as Robusta) and Coffea eugenioides.

This unusual event is called allopolyploidization. In this process, the two parent species contributed their full sets of chromosomes, resulting in Arabica inheriting a double set of genetic instructions.

Coffee origin

The story of Arabica coffee becomes even more intriguing when we consider how it came to be. This remarkable merging of two coffee species wasn’t the result of human manipulation in a laboratory or on a carefully controlled plantation. It was an entirely natural event that unfolded within the lush forests of Ethiopia.

Scientists harnessed the power of advanced computer modeling to trace the origins of Arabica coffee. These models allowed them to look back through time, pinpointing the birthplace of this unique coffee species. Their findings suggest that this extraordinary hybridization event, where two species became one, occurred an astonishing 600,000 to a million years ago.

To put that in perspective, this was long before the emergence of modern humans, let alone the development of coffee brewing techniques or the rise of coffee shops. Coffee was flourishing in its natural environment, completely independent of human influence.

Climate impact on coffee genome

The delicate aroma and smooth taste of Arabica coffee disguise its surprisingly robust history. While we may think of it as a cultivated plant, Arabica comes from a long lineage that has successfully weathered dramatic environmental changes.

“A detailed understanding of the origins and breeding history of contemporary varieties are crucial to developing new Arabica cultivars better adapted to climate change,” explained Professor Albert.

Earth’s climate has fluctuated significantly over the past millennia, experiencing periods of intense glaciation followed by warmer, wetter phases. Scientists studying the Arabica genome were able to trace how these climate shifts impacted the coffee plant populations. Their findings revealed a fascinating correlation between climate and Arabica’s abundance.

During harsh periods, particularly extended droughts, the Arabica population numbers dwindled. These challenging times likely resulted in increased competition for resources and reduced breeding success.

However, when the climate shifted towards warmer and wetter conditions, Arabica populations experienced a boom. Favorable growing conditions allowed the plants to thrive and reproduce more readily.

This cyclical pattern of population decline and growth, linked directly to climate change, demonstrates the remarkable resilience of Arabica coffee over hundreds of thousands of years. It highlights the plant’s remarkable ability to adapt and survive in a dynamic environment.

Coffee ancestors

Coffee plants share an ancestral bond with Eastern Africa, specifically an expansive geological formation known as the Great Rift Valley. This region has served as a natural cradle for coffee’s evolution. Interestingly, scientists have observed a distinct geographical divide between the wild coffee plants of the region and the specific varieties that humans have cultivated for our beloved beverages.

The cultivated coffee varieties that dominate global production all trace their origins to the eastern side of the Great Rift Valley, the region closer to Yemen. This geographical pattern provides strong support for the historical understanding that Yemen played a pivotal role in the initial domestication of coffee sometime around the 15th century.

It was from this starting point that coffee cultivation practices and the enjoyment of coffee spread outwards, eventually establishing the vibrant global coffee culture we experience today.

Genome mapping reveals coffee future

Despite its immense popularity, Arabica coffee faces significant threats. Centuries of selective breeding practices have led to a limited genetic diversity within Arabica populations. This lack of diversity leaves the species highly susceptible to devastating pests and diseases, such as the notorious coffee leaf rust.

Furthermore, the ongoing impacts of climate change, including unpredictable weather patterns and rising temperatures, pose additional challenges to the survival and productivity of Arabica coffee plants.

However, the recent mapping of the Arabica genome offers a glimmer of hope. This intricate genetic blueprint allows scientists to delve deeper into the coffee plant’s inner workings. By analyzing this map, researchers can identify specific genes that might be associated with resistance to diseases or the ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

This newfound knowledge is essential for developing strategies to safeguard the future of Arabica coffee production. It provides a roadmap for researchers seeking ways to breed more resilient coffee varieties, ensuring our continued enjoyment of this beloved beverage.

So, the next time you take a sip of your morning brew, remember this: your coffee carries within it a tale of natural wonder, ancient climates, and the enduring power of plants. From Ethiopia to your cup, the story of coffee is one to savor.

The study is published in BioRxiv.


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