Caffeine in Coffee Accidental


Researchers studying the caffeine in coffee beans have mapped out the genome sequence of the coffee plant with fascinating results. The caffeine found in coffee beans is genetically different from that found in tea or chocolate. So while chocolate and tea contain caffeine, it is an entirely different genetic strain than that strain which is found in coffee plants’ genomes. The coffee genome research project clearly suggests that the caffeine found in coffee beans is actually accidental.

Caffeine is technically a drug, but it is a natural drug. It occurs naturally in such things as tea, chocolate and coffee plants. If you are getting your dose of caffeine from something like tea or coffee, you will generally get more of a fix than if you are consuming chocolate. While many individuals need that caffeine fix, not much is known scientifically about it. That is the basic reasoning for mapping the genomes of the coffee plant. In order to learn more about caffeine and how plants make it and why, scientists needed to study the genes of a coffee plant.

The genome mapping project for the coffee beans indicates that the caffeine found in the beans is more of a genetic quirk that came about as part of natural selection. Basically, the caffeine in coffee beans is an accidental mutation that occurred in different areas of the bean, versus how it can be found in tea or chocolate. Not only did the caffeine develop in the coffee beans themselves, but it can also be found within the leaves of the plant.

Caffeine in these particular plants is a good thing, because it keeps the bugs that would eat the leaves away. Since the leaf-eating types of bugs do not like caffeine, they avoid these plants. Bees, however, do like the caffeine, which is a good thing, as it helps to keep the plants pollinated. The bees come back to the plant for the caffeine and, in turn, continually pollinate the plant.

In essence caffeine is a multi-purpose tool within the coffee plant. It acts as a deterrent to bugs that would eat the beans and leaves off the plant. On the other hand, the caffeine also gives a pleasant buzz to the pollinating insects. This nectar has a similar effect on the bees as caffeine in humans. It makes the bees come back to the plant because of that jolt from the caffeine. The nectar seems to improve the memory of the bees so that they want to return to the plant and continue to pollinate.

Unfortunately, when the plant is under attack from pathogens, caffeine is ineffective in detering them. By sequencing the genomes of the coffee plant, scientists are hoping to find a way to save the coffee beans from the attack of the pathogens. If the scientists can understand how caffeine was able to deter some bugs while continuing to thrive, there is a chance they can determine how best to counteract the pathogens attacking the coffee plant.

Caffeine in coffee may have been a coincidence as part of natural selection, but it was a happy accident as it has allowed the plant to deter bugs that would have, otherwise, destroyed it. Not only has the caffeine stopped bugs from damaging the coffee plants, but, largely because of the caffeine, coffee has become a staple in many households. Coffee would not be the same without the sequence of genomes that allowed caffeine to be introduced throughout the plant.

By Kimberley Spinney


The New York Times

CBC News

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