The human genome project worked to uncover all the scientific secrets that make us who we are and now a coffee genome project is trying to do the same for your cup of joe.
Today, the journal Science published a draft of the robusta coffee genome and we spoke to lead author Victor Albert, a plant evolutionary biologist from the University of Buffalo, about his research. The goal: “Understand everything that’s important to coffee, from disease resistance to flavors and aromas," says Albert.
While Arabica coffee is more popular, Robusta—a woody, oily variety of the species coffea canephora—is easier to sequence. More commonly found in a can of instant coffee than at your local espresso bar, Robusta has half the genetic information of Arabica though they are cousins. According to Albert, “What makes coffee, coffee can be understood from canephora.” Beyond flavors and aromas, this also includes insight into everyone's favorite stimulant, caffeine.
Plants evolved to produce caffeine because it acts as a neurotoxin in insects and inhibits growth in other plants, the study says. Interestingly, these scientists found that coffee plants evolved the ability to produce caffeine independently from cocoa and tea, the two other famous caffeine-producing plants. Getting insects buzzed is apparently a useful survival mechanism.
And ever since humans found that bouncy high that coffee can give us, the plants have spread around the globe. "With more than 2.25 billion cups consumed every day, coffee is one of the most important crops on Earth, cultivated across more than 11 million hectares," begins the study. Robusta accounts for almost a third of worldwide coffee production.
This research could help identity what genes are responsible for imparting the perfect amount of cherry flavor or the smell of toasted nuts in your morning fix. But that information alone, and the impact on which beans are grown won't necessarily improve the state of coffee. At least that's the opinion of former robusta advocate David Schomer, owner of Espresso Vivace in Seattle and a firm believer in the power of the barista. “Coffee is almost universally destroyed,” Schomer says. “[Brewing coffee] is absolute alchemy.” That might be true, but we have to say, scientists have a pretty good track record when it comes to outdoing alchemy.