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Coffee plants fight climate change with a genetic weapon

Coffee is not just a boost in the morning, it’s a big deal for the world. Scientists from the University of Udine have cracked the code on the genes that make our favorite morning drink, coffee, so delicious and resilient. 

The unique study behind Coffea arabica shines a light on how coffee survives and thrives. By understanding its genetic makeup, we can better protect our beloved coffee from threats like climate change and disease.

Mapping the genetic secrets of coffee

The scientists wanted to map the coffee plant’s blueprint. For this, they created DNA libraries from its leaves. Using advanced sequencing methods, they pieced together its genome like a puzzle. 

The study then figured the genes’ physical locations and predicted gene functions by comparing them to other plant genes. Finally, they compared the DNA of different coffee plants, finding variations that explain the evolution and key traits.

This detailed “coffee map” unlocks exciting possibilities: breeding better beans, boosting disease resistance, and enhancing the beloved beverage for generations to come. 

Study’s findings

This revealed two distinct sections within the coffee plant’s genetic makeup. These areas hinted at a tough past where the coffee plant had to fight to survive. It had scars like missing, extra, or mixed-up pieces of DNA, showing how it adapted and changed.

The coffee map also highlights 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).

Disease resistance

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.

Bugs like coffee leaf rust and coffee berry disease can wipe out entire farms, but these new genes give regular coffee better defenses. This means more coffee plants survive, leading to better harvests and a steadier supply of delicious coffee for everyone.

Genetic variation

Scientists also found several genetic variations in the plants. Previously, scientists believed specific DNA variations in coffee plants were 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. It’s actually how it keeps changing and adapting, which is good news for the future. Furthermore, by understanding its DNA, scientists can even create new coffee varieties that are extra tough!

Broader implications

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 many crops being grown, mixing different varieties and carefully planting diverse crops becomes essential for keeping people fed. 

Having more genes in crops makes agriculture stronger and able to handle new problems, which helps ensure nutritious food for the growing global population.

So next time you savor a cup of coffee, remember – you’re not just holding a beverage, but a testament to nature’s resilience and a symbol of hope for a more sustainable future.

More about coffee plants

Coffee plants, belonging to the genus Coffea, are tropical evergreens that thrive in the warm climates of regions such as Latin America, Africa, and Asia. These plants produce the coffee beans that, once processed, become the coffee beverage enjoyed worldwide. 

Ideal conditions 

Coffee plants generally prefer shaded conditions, with ideal temperatures ranging between 60°F and 70°F, and they require significant amounts of water to grow, though they must also have well-drained soil to prevent root rot.


The plant itself can grow to heights of up to 30 feet if left unpruned, but farmers often keep them shorter to facilitate easier harvesting. 

Coffee plants start bearing fruit, known as coffee cherries, three to four years after planting. These cherries typically contain two seeds, which are the coffee beans. The color of the cherries turns from green to red or yellow when they are ripe and ready for picking.


Harvesting methods vary, including hand-picking, which ensures only ripe cherries are selected, and strip-picking, where all cherries are removed from a branch at once. 

After harvesting, the beans undergo processing either through a dry method, where cherries are laid out to dry in the sun, or a wet method, which involves removing the pulp and fermenting the beans to remove the slimy layer of mucilage.


Following processing, the beans are roasted, a critical step that influences the flavor of the coffee. Roasting temperatures and times vary, allowing for a range of coffee types, from light to dark roasts. 

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.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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