Your Coffee May be More than a Half Million Years Old

That morning cup of coffee you had? It’s been around for about 600,000 years. Researchers traced the ancestry of the world’s favorite coffee, Coffea arabica, back to its origins using genetic data from coffee plants worldwide.

Their goal was pragmatic: understanding the plant’s genetic history to bolster its resilience against pests and climate shifts. They discovered that Coffea arabica emerged naturally around 600,000 years ago, the result of crossbreeding between two other coffee species.

Before humans intervened, these wild coffee plants grew in Ethiopia and were first cultivated for brewing in Yemen during the 1400s. Legend has it that in the 1600s, an Indian monk named Baba Budan smuggled seven coffee beans from Yemen, kickstarting coffee’s global journey.
Arabica coffee, known for its smooth taste, dominates the global market, accounting for 60% – 70% of coffee consumed worldwide. The remaining portion is robusta, a more bitter coffee derived from one of arabica’s parent species.

To uncover arabica’s genetic past, researchers analyzed the genomes of its parent species, Coffea canephora and Coffea eugenioides, along with over 30 arabica plants, including a sample from the 1700s provided by the Natural History Museum in London.

Their findings, published in Nature Genetics, shed light on arabica’s evolutionary journey. They discovered that the plant’s population fluctuated over millennia, adapting to environmental changes. However, these fluctuations left arabica vulnerable to diseases like coffee leaf rust.

By identifying genetic markers associated with resistance to coffee leaf rust, researchers hope to develop strategies to protect arabica coffee from future threats. Fabian Echeverria, an adviser for the Center for Coffee Research and Education at Texas A&M University, highlights the study’s importance in safeguarding the future of coffee production.

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