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Successful gene-splicing for coffee.


In September 1986, this niche discussed some of the implications of the coming biotechnology revolution and how it might affect the industry. Although advances had already been made in the pharmaceutical field and such sales were already in the multi-million dollar range, it was estimated that agriculture had far greater potential and developments here would soon be in the multi-billion dollar area. Envisioned for beverages were crops devoid of caffeine, for a less expensive decaffeinated variety; growths with improved and higher intensity, longer lasting aroma, as well as the possibility for an entirely new breed of flavors; also the potential for creating other low cost vegetable drinks based upon beams, peas, nuts or leaves with coffee or tea flavor as a no-caffeine beverage; or the same materials with caffeine for lower cost stimulation.

First report of gene-splicing of coffee has now been made by the American Exchange listed company, Escagenetics Corporation of San Carlos, California. Their accomplishment solved the difficult problem of introducing a foreign gene (in this case, the antibiotic Kanamycin) into the backbone DNA of the coffee plant. This affords the grower a strain with high resistance to microbial diseases that might attack the bushes. The transformation was performed on Arabica and should be equally viable for Robusta. As the first reported example of successful coffee genetic engineering, the company forsees further research could lead to benefits for both growers and roasters. Anticipated quality changes include naturally low or caffeine-free beans, improved flavor, better yields, resistance of plants to pests, and higher soluble solids. We're still several years away from commercialization. Meanwhile, patent protection has been applied and the company is seeking partners "to develop high valued proprietary coffee plants with improved quality."

DNA (de-oxy-ribo-nucleic acid) is a convoluted molecule occurring in all living cells from the simplest bacteria to the most complex animal organism. In humans, for example, our forty-eight chromosomes contain a total length of about six billion base pairs of DNA. This codes the thousands of mental and physical qualities and reactions that determine our individuality. DNA is the molecule that directs all activities of living cells including its own reproduction and perpetuation, generation after generation. Since each base pair controls a single property of the organism, by delicately changing one at a time, we now have the ability to control single qualities of each living plant: to add a specific property, to substract some or to modify it in any direction.

Escagenetics was established in 1987 to acquire the assets of International Plant Research Institute and to commercialize several of its most promising proprietary programs. Also to develop new businesses for the food and agriculture industry. Progress has been substantial with commercialization under way for corn and dates; commercial development for potato seeds; and technological progress for coffee, tomatoes and vanilla.

In corn, two distinctive varieties are now being marketed as a result of their biotechnological research. Using proprietary germ plasma coupling procedures, the genetic make up of hundreds of cross bred sweet corn stains were analyzed to create a group of hybrids that far surpass the quality of present fresh market and frozen sweet corn products. Production trials on hundreds of acres in the U.S. West Coast and in Chile demonstrated the value of these products, which are presently marketed in the U.S. and Japan. The next generation hybrids will eliminate the need for blanching, resulting in substantial savings and improved texture of frozen cob and cut corn packs.

Starch corn is the other variety that has been improved by developing hybrids containing starches with properties similar or superior to chemically modified types. Patents have already been granted for nine hybrids for their use in food applications. A large scale planting has been successfully harvested and milled. Production of parental stock, hybrid seeds and hybrid corn, is expanding in the midwest, California and Chile.

The date palm is part of a program to develop superior planting materials. Starting with cell tissue from parent trees with superior qualities the company has cloned or micro-propagated thousands of identical healthy plantlets exhibiting physical traits of fast growth, disease resistance, ideal height and yield, and high quality fruit. This work has been going on for some eight years in the Middle East, Arizona, California and Australia. Fruit production occurs within two to three years from outplantings, and is virtually identical in visual and organoleptic properties to fruit from conventional offshoots.

In commercial development are true potato seed hybrids. Potato is the world's only major crop not grown from seeds. Currently, they are grown from the bud or eye of the tuber - requiring a ton of potatoes to plant one acre. These are susceptible to disease and require expensive certification. The new hybrid seed eliminates these costs as well as the storage expense and disease transmission problems. Seed production is underway in Chile, and field trials are in progress in the U.S., Europe and Chile.

Goal of research and development in the manipulation of the tomato is to create hybrids, to yield higher solids fruit with superior texture attributes, for tomato based products from ketchup to pasta sauce. The gene system comes from a proprietary carbohydrate pool researched for some five years.

Another interesting development is Phyto-Vanilla - equivalent to pure vanilla extract. Through plant tissue culture, cells were induced in a fermentation environment to generate flavor and aroma components rather than leaves, stems and roots. With vanilla bean at $35 per pound, this technique produces liquid flavor equivalent to the natural extract at substantial savings. This technology promises to produce other natural flavors at interesting economics.

Whether coffee aroma and flavor can be produced in this manner is questionable. If such aroma were naturally present in the green bean, it could be easily made. But coffee aroma develops only after roasting. Accordingly, it may be possible to grow aroma precursors, which still require thermal treatment.

In coffee research, Escagenetic claims to be the first organization to develop genetic engineering techniques to manipulate coffee characteristics. They are currently acquiring appropriate patent protection in this area. Research efforts are being focused in two directions: planting materials with superior agronomic qualities of resistance to pests and adverse environmental circumstances; and coffee with desirable commercial attributes of reduced caffeine content or increased soluble solids content.

Coffee biotechnology will not necessarily result in lower prices for this commodity. Better plants can lead to more reliable crops and possibly a more satisfactory margin for the grower; while superior processing qualities could also lead to a better bottom line for the roaster and extractor. Creative genesplicing could also lead to more distinctive, premium products which could expand consumption, as well as generate interest, in superior franchises. In any event, we now see the dawn of bio-engineered coffee.
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Author:Lee, Samuel
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:column
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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