Genome research means zero-caffeine coffee bean could soon grow in Queensland

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 15th September 2014
Genome research means zero-caffeine coffee bean could soon grow in Queensland
Genome research means zero-caffeine coffee bean could soon grow in Queensland

It will soon be possible to grow premium-quality caffeine-free coffee, tea and cocoa, thanks to research from the University of Queensland.

The University of Queensland researchers said the developments will offer the 12 per cent of coffee drinkers who choose decaf access to a “pure, less-processed product with all the full-bodied flavour of the real thing”.

Professor Robert Henry, at UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), said this was one outcome of an international research effort analysing the coffee genome.

“It should soon be possible to select and grow coffee with a pre-determined level of caffeine – ranging from zero-caf to jumpstart,” Professor Henry said. “Helping Queensland producers to grow export-quality coffee destined for high-value niche markets is our ultimate goal,” he said.

Professor Henry said genome sequencing of the coffee plant Coffea canephora confirmed that caffeine had developed independently in various plants. Professor Henry contributed much of the DNA sequence data used in assembling the coffee genome.

“Coffee, cacao (the source of cocoa and chocolate) and tea appear to share an ability to produce caffeine in their leaves, shoots or stems,” Professor Henry said.

“Although such plants are not closely related, they all synthesise caffeine,” Professor Henry said. “It seems that during their evolution, each plant independently developed the ability to make caffeine,” he said.

Professor Henry said the researchers thought caffeine offered plants several advantages, including insecticidal properties and an inhibitory function that prevents seed germination in competing species.

“Our new understanding of the evolutionary origins of caffeine is destined to give us the high-precision tools we need to regulate how caffeine is expressed in a single bean,” Professor Henry said.

QAAFI is also working with flavour scientists and industry partners to unpick the genomic component of premium coffee. Australia produces a small fraction of the 7.8 million tonne global coffee market, exporting less than 1000 tonnes a year.

“Potentially, Queensland could develop a multi-million-dollar market for high-quality, premium coffees, ranging from full strength to decaffeinated,” Professor Henry said.

QAAFI flavour scientist Dr Heather Smyth said traditional methods of minimising caffeine often led to flavour loss.

“Understanding the origin of caffeine in coffee means that potentially we can develop varieties with low or no caffeine,” Dr Smyth said. “If the decaffeinating process could be avoided, the beans would retain the full coffee flavour,” she said.

The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) is a University of Queensland research institute which was formed as a strategic alliance between The University of Queensland and the Queensland Government. QAAFI brings together scientists from across the plant, animal and food sciences, working closely with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF).