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Scientists to develop a more resistant coffee in the next one year
By Magali Moreau
States of emergency have been declared across Central America this year as coffee plants are being devastated by an aggressive fungal leaf disease.
The disease known as la roya del café (coffee rust), has inflicted losses of nearly 3 million bags of coffee, representing over $500 million in market value.
Scientists from Brazil, France, and the United States—three countries that consume over 30 per cent of the world’s coffee production—are working together to develop tools to save the beloved and popular drink.
Drs Lukas Mueller and Susan Strickler from the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY are working with colleagues to sequence the genome of the widely consumed Arabica species of the plant Coffea.
Once sequenced—anticipated to be finalized in one year—it is hoped that the resulting catalog of genetic information will help breeders produce a more resistant plant.
This information will enable the breeders to compare the genetic makeup of different coffee species and pinpoint underlying resistance genes.
All of the coffee we drink comes from two species, Arabica (Coffea arabica) and Robusta (C. canephora). Between the two, Arabica is the most fragrant and highly appreciated for its taste.
However, it is also the most susceptible to the leaf rust fungus (Hemileia vastatrix). Resistant to the fungus, the Robusta species is generally noted for its distinctive bitterness and is often used in instant coffee.
Understanding the genes associated with disease resistance in Robusta can help breeders improve defenses in Arabica, thereby preserving the species with the more refined flavor.
“The time is ripe for us to make a meaningful contribution to improve coffee resistance and ultimately quality. Sequencing technology and gene knowledge have advanced quickly and this allows us to tackle the complexity of the coffee genome,” said Dr Lukas Mueller.
Dr Mueller was brought onto the coffee genome project because of his expertise in bioinformatics and his work on the tomato genome at BTI.
Interestingly, the same tools that were used to decipher the tomato sequence can now be used to better understand coffee.
“The Arabica genomic information, together with the impending release of the Robusta genome, will constitute invaluable tools for breeding programs to improve Arabica’s cup quality and fitness by exploiting the huge genetic diversity of Robusta plants,” explained French scientist Dominique Crouzillat.
With the launch of this year-long project, the collaborating laboratories will be in close contact to organize and analyze the new genomic sequence data from the Arabica and Robusta plants.
Once the C. arabica genome is fully sequenced, it will be made publicly available on website, www.solgenomics.net. As Dr Mueller concluded, “Like a lot of people, I need my cup of coffee in the morning, and this genomic project will give the breeders the jolt they need to maintain our coffee habits.”
The project is an international effort involving breeders and computational scientists from the Brazilian company EMBRAPA (Drs Alan Carvalho Andrade and Luiz-Filipe Protasio Pereira), Brazilian Research and Development Center of Agriculture IAPAR (Dr Douglas Silva Domingez), from the French Institute of Research for Development (Dr Alexandre de Kochko), from Nestlé France (Dr Dominique Crouzillat), the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (Drs. Lukas Mueller and Suzy Strickler), and from the University of Illinois (Dr. Ray Ming).
Magali Moreau, Ph.D. is a research associate at the Boyce Thompson Institute.