Archives for the month of: April, 2013

Have you been tuning to Coffee Week on NPR’s Morning Edition this week?  They’ve highlighted coffee’s production, culture, politics, economics and more, and one particular piece, entitled “Exploring Coffee’s Past to Rescue Its Future” by Dan Charles, caught my attention as a plant pathologist.  You can listen to the story here or check out the written accompaniment here.  Charles highlights a challenge to coffee production: the lack of diversity in coffee varieties that are in production today. 

You see, the majority of coffee (Coffea arabica) grown all over the world originates from 2 genetic lines, Bourbon and Typica.  These lines were likely selected for their favorable agronomic qualities, such as yield, and characteristics desired/demanded by the consumer, such as taste or roasting properties.  However, due to a fungal plant disease called coffee rust, popular varieties of coffee may fall short; that is, they weren’t originally bred for resistance plant disease.  And since coffee essentially hails from the same genetic background (lack of diversity) and growers plant them throughout coffee growing regions, we’ve created the perfect storm where nearly all coffee is susceptible to coffee rust. Coffee rust damages the leaves and without leaves, the plant cannot produce quality berries.  No berries? No beans. No coffee.  Ok, “no coffee” may be a little dramatic, but coffee rust has the ability to increase production inputs, limit supply and eventually drive up the cost for your bag of beans.

 Coffee rust lesions. Image: P.A. Arneson via APSnet.org

Coffee rust lesions. Image: P.A. Arneson via APSnet.org

This challenge is not unique to coffee production and can be seen in nearly all crops grown by man, including staples such as rice, corn, wheat and potatoes.  As they mention in the piece, research centers to explore the genetics of these staple crops have been established throughout the world but not for coffee.  Studying and preserving diversity of domesticated plants is essential to combating plant disease and one of the best places to look for novel disease resistance genes is in the plant’s center of origin, where the plant is thought to have evolved.  The center of origin for coffee is Ethiopia and wild coffee and other species of Coffea collected there are being studied, cataloged and evaluated for resistance to coffee rust.  The goal is to incorporate the qualities demanded by consumers and growers with improved disease resistance.

Kinda makes you want to savor that morning cup of joe a little more, doesn’t it?  It’s one of those things I appreciate about agriculture and that’s something as simple as a coffee bean has a vast and complicated story; one than has woven itself deeply into cultures around the world.

 Historic Distribution of Coffea arabica.  Image: Specialty Coffee Association of America via npr.org

Historic Distribution of Coffea arabica.
Image: Specialty Coffee Association of America via npr.org

Image: Specialty Coffee Association of America via npr.org

PS – a coffee quiz

PPS – Coffee rust isn’t new.  It’s one of the reasons the British historically drink tea! Confused? Check this out!

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Welcome to my blog! My name is Katelyn and I am a scientist and educator. This is a place for me to share my passions: biology, plants, fungi, agriculture, food, health, nature and more! So stick around, unless it’s spring where you live, too…  In that case, get outdoors and observe all that blooming goodness while you can!  That’s where I’ll be!

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