Understanding GMOs: genetic engineering and the future of coffee
Arabica coffee farming is complex and delicate. This coffee species is grown mainly in the so-called coffee belt, where about 25 million people are involved in its production, all of whom are vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, as suggests this story from Daily Coffee News, initially published in the January/February issue of Roast Magazine.
“My father could produce 2,000 kilograms of coffee per hectare,” says Sulaiman Abu Bakar, a coffee producer in the Aceh area of Sumatra. Today, his farm yields only about 800 kilograms of green coffee per hectare. This decrease is not exclusive to Sulaiman’s farm, but a common problem to his neighbors and the region.
Studies suggest that by 2050, climate change will impact more than half the land currently used for coffee cultivation, creating conditions unsuitable for production. While climate change is difficult to predict, the scientific community agrees the future outlook for coffee production is dire unless immediate action is taken.
Conventional breeding programs can take over 30 years to produce a commercially available cultivar, which leaves genetic engineering as a quick, potential and effective tool.
Natural and artificial mutations
Natural selection exploits genetic mutations that confer advantageous traits. Wild, undomesticated organisms have been subjected to natural selection for tens of thousands of years, allowing them to thrive in diverse environments, with each organism containing a diverse genetic population. Unfortunately, Coffea arabica is one of the least genetically diverse crops currently under cultivation, a major concern for the species and its ability to overcome the threats caused by climate change.
Some varieties of Coffea arabica have been derived through natural genetic mutation. For example, the variety Maragogype, known for its distinctively large seeds, was discovered in Brazil and is now grown throughout the world. Because natural mutations occur spontaneously, it is important for producers to recognize these anomalies and segregate the seeds for future planting and propagation. While there have been new varieties of coffee cultivated through this means, this process is slow, and most mutations go unrecognized as natural selection occurs over generations. This is a major disadvantage for the producer, who must confront changing growing conditions today.
Efforts to investigate artificially induced genetic mutations in plants began in the 1920s. For example, scientists exposed hundreds of seeds to X-rays, a mutagen (an agent that causes genetic mutation) capable of breaching the physical barriers of the seed. Because of the high-energy wavelength, X-rays can penetrate the cellular structures of the seed and induce heritable genetic mutations, a technique called mutagenesis. It would be another three decades until the structure of DNA was proposed by genetic scientists Franklin, Crick and Watson, propelling the development of a new field: molecular biology.
Mutagenesis has been refined and improved throughout the past century. In addition to X-rays, both gamma and neutron radiation have been used to induce mutations. Chemical mutagenesis, a more recent application, also has been successful. This technique has progressed significantly since the pioneering experiments in the 1920s. Researchers can now treat whole plants, cuttings and tissue in culture. The development of mutagenesis has artificially increased genetic diversity in essential crops, allowing scientists to breed crops with novel traits that allow them to survive and thrive.
Fortunately, Buencafé has not had to resort to GMOs. Through the National Coffee Research Center (Cenicafé), since 1967 it has followed a genetic diversity strategy to develop multilineal varieties that are resistant to diseases such as rust, a great competitive advantage over other producing countries.
This genetic improvement is achieved through natural crossbreeding of the best parents and then by selecting the best progenies (offspring), which inherit characteristics such as resistance to rust.
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>>You may also want to read: “The FNC searches for new, more efficient coffee harvesting solutions”
Understanding GMOs: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Coffee. January 2018. Daily Coffee News. Retrieved from https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/01/29/understanding-gmos-genetic-engineering-and-the-future-of-coffee/