DNA is the stuff of crime scenes, medical laboratories and TV whodunit dramas, but now high-tech DNA is being used to improve our morning lifeline.

Scientists recently mapped the DNA of the common coffee bean, coffea Robusta. That’s the bean used to make basic, entry-level coffee, which accounts for about 30 percent of the world’s coffee crop.

Researchers have several java-related goals they hope to address with their high-tech coffee work.

The DNA sequencing could lead to advances that “improve the bean’s yield, quality and resistance to disease and draught,” according to Nestle. Nestle scientists participated in the research, which was led by the French Institute of Research for Development, the French National Sequencing Centre and the University of Buffalo.

Improving the bean makes sense because demand for coffee is rising by about 5 percent a year in nations like China, Indonesia and Brazil. And most of that demand is for Robusta-based coffee.

But there’s another reason Robusta’s DNA map matters: It’s part of a larger map, one that leads to coffea Arabica, the current king of coffee.

Many coffee drinkers prefer Arabica, although it’s just a hybrid of Robusta and another bean, coffea eugenioides. It has a smoother and richer taste than Robusta, and is used to make espresso and cappuccino.

But it’s not just for fancy brewing. Arabica accounts for about 70 percent of world coffee production. The hope is that DNA sequencing will help Arabica maintain such high production levels.

People around the world drink 2.25 billion cups of coffee a day. With climate change affecting coffee crops and urbanization in developing countries driving up demand, the rising cost of coffee is a concern. In fact, the price-per-pound for Arabica coffee just reached a two-year high on Wall Street.

coffee rust

A fungus called coffee rust is wreaking havoc on coffee plants. (Photo: Howard F. Schwartz, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org)

Other cool coffee discoveries

But the Robusta DNA map isn’t all about economics. The research unearthed some interesting non-financial finds.

Caffeine for instance — which for some people is the reason coffee exists — is a genetic quirk in coffee, compared to the caffeine in tea or chocolate. Scientists have long assumed that the caffeine in all three plants was related. But the new research shows that caffeine evolved independently in coffee. The caffeine was found in different genes in each plants’ genomes.

Most likely, coffee’s independent caffeine development has to do with how it deters certain predators. A lot of harmful bugs are turned off by the stimulant and won’t chew on coffee leaves. Bees and other pollinators don’t mind it, though, and — like so many humans — are happy to keeping coming back for more. It may not help a bee‘s “buzz,” but it’s a real boon to pollination, and thus to coffee’s evolutionary survival.

Which is interesting, but how important are such discoveries for our every-day world?  As it turns out, very.

It’s these sorts of findings that allow plant genomists to understand a species well enough to protect it from decline, or even extinction. That’s certainly helpful now as coffee plants are facing attack from a leaf-blighting disease. Coffee rust is a fungus that makes the plants weak and barren.

The effects haven’t hit developed nations yet, but that outcome is possible. That’s why advances such as DNA mapping may be more than just cool. They may end up saving your morning cup of joe.

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