Your morning coffee could be more than half a million years old – Associated Press

Photo: Mohammed Fita picks coffee beans on his farm Choche, near Jimma, 375 kilometers southwest of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Saturday, September 21, 2002

That coffee you guzzled this morning? It is 600,000 years old.

Using genes from coffee plants around the world, researchers have built a family tree for the world’s most popular coffee variety, known to scientists as Coffea arabica and to coffee lovers simply “arabica.”

The researchers, hoping to learn more about the plants to better protect them from pests and climate change, discovered that the species originated about 600,000 years ago through natural crosses of two other coffee varieties.

“In other words, prior to any human intervention,” says Victor Albert, a biologist at the University at Buffalo who co-led the study.

These wild coffee plants originally come from Ethiopia, but are said to have been first roasted and brewed in Yemen from the 15th century onwards. In the 17th century, Indian monk Baba Budan is said to have smuggled seven raw coffee beans from Yemen to his home country, laying the foundation for coffee’s global takeover.

Arabica coffee, prized for its smooth and relatively sweet taste, now makes up 60% to 70% of the global coffee market and is brewed by brands such as Starbucks, Tim Horton’s and Dunkin’. The rest is robusta, a stronger and more bitter coffee made from one of Arabica’s parents, Coffea canephora.

To map the past of arabica coffee, researchers studied the genomes of C. canephora, another parent called Coffea eugenioides, and more than thirty different arabica plants, including a sample from the 18th century – courtesy of the Natural History Museum in London – that Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus used to name the plant.

The study was published Monday in the journal Nature Genetics. Researchers from Nestlé, owner of several coffee brands, contributed to the study.

The population of the arabica plant fluctuated for thousands of years before humans began to cultivate it; it thrived during warm, wet periods and suffered during dry spells. These lean times created so-called population bottlenecks, with only a small number of genetically similar plants surviving.

Today, that makes arabica coffee plants more vulnerable to diseases such as coffee leaf rust, which cause billions of dollars in losses annually. The researchers examined the composition of one Arabica variety that is resistant to coffee leaf rust, highlighting parts of the genetic code that could help protect the plant.

The study clarifies how arabica came to be and provides clues that could help protect the crop, said Fabian Echeverria, a consultant at the Center for Coffee Research and Education at Texas A&M University, who was not involved in the study.

Exploring Arabica’s past and present could provide insight into keeping coffee plants healthy – and coffee cups flowing – for future early mornings.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.