November 1, 2005

Cornell and Nestle Team Up

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Cream, sugar, or genetically altered? This month, researchers from Cornell and the Nestle Corporation released a joint analysis of the genes that make up coffee in an effort to improve the quality and taste of the world’s most popular beverage.

The study, prepared in conjunction with the Indonesian Coffee and Cacao Research Institute, is expected to help coffee breeders by highlighting the important genes in coffee beans that could be emphasized by growers.

“This comparative analysis should tell us what the important genes are, and consecutively, the important pathways and precursors for cup quality (taste) and ‘over the cup aroma,'” said Vincent Petiard, head of the Nestle Plant Science Research Center.

The team identified over 13,000 individual genes, according to a Cornell press release, of which half were successfully linked to a specific metabolic function. The genes chosen for identification were expressed during the “various ripening stages” of the coffee beans and cherries, said Petiard. The results of the research, which were released in the Oct. 15 edition of “Theoretical and Applied Genetics,” are expected to have widespread implications for the coffee industry across the world.

“This research may help breeders and developers of coffee around the world to improve productivity and quality of coffee,” said Dr. Steve D. Tanksley, professor of plant breeding and genetics.

Rather than funnel the research directly to major companies, the authors of the study have disseminated the information through many open channels. In addition to its publication, the study will be released in “open proof” form to several scientific websites. “It would be a pity not to share this information with those who could benefit from it,” Petiard said. “It would be unethical to sit on this pile of data.”

While the information is immediately available to growers, it may be some time before overworked students can drink from a more potent pot. Spreading the study “is obviously a long process,” said Petiard, who added that the sequencing of coffee beans is “comparable” to the complicated mapping of the human genome.

Once breeders are able to use the research for innovation, however, poor countries might profit enormously. The top ten coffee-producing nations, according to the National Geographic website, include Colombia, Ethiopia and Uganda, all among the poorest countries in the world.

According to Petiard, the concentration of coffee production in impoverished nations motivated the study in part: “A highly reputed U.S. University, and the largest food company, and a poor coffee-producing country have cumulated their competencies in a nice way.”

The study might also benefit growers and breeders by providing genomic information for similar crops. As more genomic sequences are analyzed, data from coffee strands might be useful for sequences from other plants, and vice versa.

“The beauty of the Tanksley team’s strategy is that we can later on take the benefits of the ongoing full sequencing of tomato for transferring some tomato data useful for coffee without having to sequence the whole coffee genome,” said Petiard.

While many other crops have already profited from channels of communication opened to discuss genomic sequencing, discourse on the coffee bean has, until now, been limited by insufficient research. Cornell’s website devoted to the new research, according to Petiard, is expected to serve as the “nucleus of a network of open collaborative work between coffee scientists.”

The major coffee companies, which have not yet expressed interest in the research, might benefit from a careful read-through of the study. After all, who wants to buy coffee from a bunch of has-beans?

Archived article by Rob Fishman
Sun Staff Writer