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Scientists discover the prehistoric origins of coffee

Insights into the genetic history of Arabica coffee, the beloved species responsible for approximately 60% of the world's coffee production.
Insights into the genetic history of Arabica coffee, the beloved species responsible for approximately 60% of the world's coffee production. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Coffee, one of the world's most beloved beverages, owes its existence to a fascinating journey through time and geography.

Scientists, spearheaded by researchers from the University at Buffalo (UB), have unveiled a groundbreaking study published in Nature Genetics, offering profound insights into the genetic history of Arabica coffee, the beloved species responsible for approximately 60% of the world's coffee production.


Through cutting-edge genomic analysis, researchers have reconstructed the evolutionary path of Arabica coffee, shedding light on its origins and how it has adapted over millennia.

"We've used genomic information in plants alive today to go back in time and paint the most accurate picture possible of Arabica's long history," explains Victor Albert, co-corresponding author of the study and Empire Innovation Professor in UB's Department of Biological Sciences.


Arabica coffee, cultivated for centuries and consumed globally, traces its roots back over 600,000 years to the forests of Ethiopia. Contrary to popular belief, Arabica's creation was not a result of human intervention but rather a natural process of hybridization between two other coffee species, Coffea canephora and Coffea eugenioides.

The study reveals that Arabica's journey has been shaped by the ebb and flow of Earth's climatic fluctuations over thousands of years. "Arabica's population waxed and waned throughout Earth's heating and cooling periods," notes Albert.


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This ancient lineage endured various climatic shifts before being cultivated in Ethiopia and Yemen and eventually spreading across the globe.

However, despite its widespread popularity, Arabica faces significant challenges due to its limited genetic diversity, stemming from historical inbreeding and a small population size. This vulnerability renders Arabica susceptible to pests and diseases, threatening its cultivation in regions where climate conditions are less favorable.


Understanding Arabica's genetic past is crucial for developing resilient cultivars capable of withstanding the challenges posed by climate change. "A detailed understanding of the origins and breeding history of contemporary varieties is crucial to developing new Arabica cultivars better adapted to climate change," emphasizes Albert.

The study's findings also shed light on the intricate relationships between Arabica and its wild relatives. By sequencing 39 Arabica varieties, including an 18th-century specimen, researchers uncovered valuable insights into the genetic makeup of this iconic species. "The quality of our team's work is extremely high," remarks Patrick Descombes, senior expert in genomics at Nestlé Research, one of the study's co-leaders.


Through computational modeling, researchers pinpointed significant events in Arabica's evolutionary history, including the original hybridization event between its parental species. This event, estimated to have occurred over 600,000 years ago, predates human intervention in coffee cultivation, underscoring the species' natural resilience.

The study also provides clues about Arabica's geographic origins, suggesting that coffee cultivation may have originated in Yemen around the 15th century. Evidence indicates that Yemeni coffee diversity played a pivotal role in shaping the genetic diversity of modern Arabica varieties.

Arabica's genetic journey mirrors the climatic fluctuations of East Africs geoclimatic history. Population bottlenecks and expansions coincide with periods of environmental change, highlighting the species' ability to adapt to diverse ecological conditions.


Despite its ancient lineage, Arabica's low genetic diversity poses a significant threat to its future. Cultivated Arabica, with an estimated effective population size of only 10,000 to 50,000 individuals, is vulnerable to pathogens such as coffee leaf rust, causing substantial economic losses annually.

The study's comprehensive genomic analysis offers promising avenues for enhancing Arabica's resilience. By identifying regions of the genome associated with disease resistance, researchers aim to develop improved cultivars capable of withstanding the challenges of a changing climate.

The Timor variety, a spontaneous hybrid between Arabica and Coffea canephora, holds promise for enhancing Arabica's resistance to diseases. By harnessing the genetic diversity of its parent species, Arabica can potentially acquire robust defenses against pathogens.


The study sheds light on the genetic relationships between Arabica and its wild relatives, providing valuable insights for future breeding efforts. By unraveling the intricate genetic tapestry of Arabica coffee, researchers aim to secure its future in the face of climate uncertainty.

Nestlé Research, along with contributions from various organizations, funded this groundbreaking research, underscoring the collaborative effort behind unraveling Arabica's genetic mysteries. As coffee continues to captivate the world, understanding its ancient origins holds the key to ensuring its resilience in a rapidly changing world.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


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