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Genome study reveals prehistoric origins of coffee in Ethiopia

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WASHINGTON: You might call it a cup of joe, java, mud, beer, mocha or your morning shake. Coffee is undoubtedly an integral part of global culture, and that made from Arabica beans is the most popular among coffee drinkers.

Researchers have now discovered the genome of the Arabica species and traced its origins to a natural mating between two other coffee species, around 610,000 to a million years ago, in the forests of Ethiopia. This makes this species older than our own species Homo sapiens, which appeared in Africa around 300,000 years ago.

Researchers sequenced the genomes of 39 Arabica varieties, including an 18th-century specimen, to create the highest quality genome to date of this species, whose scientific name is Coffea arabica. They also discovered a specific region of the genome that could play a crucial role in breeding or genetic engineering of disease resistance.

“Arabica is one of the world’s major staple crops, occupying a large part of the agricultural economy of the countries in which it is grown,” said plant evolutionary biologist Victor Albert of the University at Buffalo in New York, one of the association’s leaders. study published this week in the journal Nature Genetics.

“It’s an important part of the livelihood of small local players, not just grown and exploited by big companies. Coffee is a rich source of antioxidants and, of course, caffeine – which helps me, as well than the rest of the world, to stay awake,” Albert added.

Research has shown that the Arabica population increased and decreased over millennia as the climate warmed and cooled. It was first cultivated by people in Ethiopia and Yemen, and then spread throughout the world.

“Coffee and humanity have been closely linked throughout history. In many producing countries, Arabica coffee represents more than a culture, it is part of culture and tradition,” said Patrick Descombes , senior genomics expert at Nestlé Research and lecturer at the Swiss Research Institute. The Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), another of those responsible for the study.

Arabica has been found to have low genetic diversity due to a history of inbreeding and a small population size. The species, susceptible to pests and diseases, can be cultivated in a limited number of regions where climatic conditions are favorable and disease threats are less.

The research “paves the way for new approaches to coffee breeding, which will ultimately lead to the development of new varieties with improved resistance to disease, climate change and with new cup (aroma) qualities,” Descombes said.

Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world – an estimated 2.25 billion cups are consumed daily – as well as one of the most traded products. Arabica accounts for the majority of global coffee production.

According to researchers, Arabica formed as a natural hybridization between two parental species – Coffea canephora and Coffea eugenioides. The canephora species is called Robusta coffee and its genome was sequenced in 2014.

Robusta is commonly used in instant coffee, while Arabica is considered to have a superior flavor, generally known for its smoother, milder taste. The Robusta species is native to the forests of equatorial Africa.

“Robusta is also known because it is quite resistant to major coffee pests and diseases – hence its name Robusta, for robust,” Descombes said.

The eugenioides species grows at high altitudes in Kenya.

The 18th-century specimen sequenced in the study came from a sample stored in London that had been used by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus to name the species coffea.

“We were able to sequence its genome and, in fact, we found that it was not particularly closely related to the varieties grown today,” Albert said.

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