The Emotional Rollercoaster of Creating a Better Decaf Coffee Bean

By Veronique Greenwood | March 15, 2012 11:21 am

Ripening coffee berries.

Coffee aficionados may look down their noses at decaf beans, which are chemically treated to rob them of their caffeine, and, some say, their flavor. But the market for decaf is worth $2 billion a year, and if scientists can create a bean that’s naturally stimulant-free, well…that would be a kick. A new feature at Nature News chronicles the frantic efforts of plant biotechnologists to create such a caffeine-free coffee bean. It’s a tall order:

Developing such a bean through conventional breeding or even genetic modification has proved more difficult than anyone anticipated. Coffee plants take years to begin producing beans, and can be fickle when they do. Moreover, to make them profitable to farm, the plants need to be productive, ripen synchronously and be of a size and shape that can be harvested easily by hand or by machines. The loss of any of these traits can render a plant worthless.

Hope and heartbreak mix in equal proportions in this story: find a promising plant, watch its flowers wither before they are ready to be fertilized; come with a dynamo technique, suffer cripplingly small yields. John Stiles of University of Hawaii, after triumphing over the mysterious unwillingness of C. arabica cells to take up new genetic material and starting a private lab to develop his creations, found that as they grew, caffeine began creeping into their tissues. Nearly a decade after Paulo Mezzaferra found that he’d made plants with miniscule levels of caffeine, he is still struggling to get them to thrive.

But it’s quite a ride. Read more at Nature News.

Image courtesy of Kenneth Hong / flickr


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