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Is a new variety the future of coffee? A new coffee variety--an F1 hybrid that is propagated by seed--named Starmaya may offer a glimpse into a much brighter future for the coffee plant.

World Coffee Research announced that Starmaya, selected by ECOM and CIRAD, and which is being tested in farmer fields in 2017, is the first variety of its kind: an F1 hybrid that is propagated by seed, rather than through costly biotechnology. For coffee producers this could mean widespread access to an elite class of varieties that will dramatically reshape the industry in the decades to come.

In coffee, as in other crops, F1 hybrids have the potential to combine traits that matter most to farmers--higher yields and disease resistance --with the trait that matters most to consumers-taste, a combination that has been difficult to attain. But F1 hybrids are limited by a key constraint: they can only be produced by technically sophisticated nurseries, of which there are only a handful in the world. Therefore, although these varieties are "best in class," almost no farmers have access to them. Starmaya may change that.

Until now, the only way to efficiently reproduce F1 hybrids for farmers has been through clonal propagation, which must be done in laboratories. But there are few labs that produce coffee hybrids commercially in the world, and the cost can be double that of plants reproduced by seed. None of the existing labs produces more than one million seedlings per year.

Coffee is typically sold to farmers as seed. In crops like corn, F1 hybrid seeds are created through manual controlled pollination. This is not economically feasible in coffee due to the biology of the plant. In order to produce F1 hybrid seeds in coffee, you need a workaround. Researchers have identified that workaround --the inability of one parent to produce pollen (called male sterility). It led to the creation of Starmaya --the first F1 hybrid Arabica plant able to be propagated by seed.

Starmaya represents a major breakthrough in coffee breeding that suggests the main constraint on the widespread production of F1 hybrids for farmers around the world may soon fall away.

Constraints on Propagation

World Coffee Research will incorporate Starmaya into many of its research programs, including the Global Coffee Monitoring Platform, a network of hundreds of on-farm technology trials, and into any new locations of the International Multilocation Variety Trial, the world's largest coffee seed exchange. The organization also plans to support and accelerate the creation of new seed-propagated F1 hybrids that are high quality, high yielding, disease resistant, and climate-smart.

So far, Starmaya is the only F1 hybrid from seed. But researchers are actively looking for more varieties exhibiting male sterility that could be used in breeding. College Station, Texas-based World Coffee Research (WCR) is also actively working to identify how male sterility works such that it might be possible to turn sterility on and off in any variety. This would open the universe of known Arabica varieties to be used in breeding new F1 hybrids.

Still, there are a small handful of F1 hybrid varieties in coffee, but because of the constraints on propagation, they are not widely available for farmers. The most prevalent is Centroamericano, a rust resistant, high yielding cross between Sarchimor T5296 and wild accession Rume Sudan with cupping scores that can exceed those of Caturra, the standard in the region. It was released in 2001 for farmers in Central America.

It is estimated that it is planted on roughly 1,000 hectares in the region. In breeding evaluations, Centroamericano showed production increases of 22-47 percent over the parent varieties. Cupping scores ranged from 75-87 vs 74-79 for Caturra (SCAA evaluation), and bean size is also superior to Caturra (ranged from 69-85 for Centroamericano vs 56-85 percent for Caturra).

The potential to scale up the use of hybrids in coffee through seed propagation made by possible by male-sterility is huge. A one-hectare seed garden for coffee is capable of producing enough seed for over 200 hectares of coffee. Currently, a coffee clonal propagation lab can produce only enough seedlings for 15 hectares of coffee.

Seed gardens are substantially less expensive to build and maintain, and don't require the technical expertise that clonal propagation labs do. While it might be possible in the future to establish dozens or hundreds of hybrid seed gardens in the world, it's unlikely that many cloning labs would be created.

The increased size and vigour of hybrids between plant varieties and species has been known for centuries. The most famous case of hybrids changing agricultural fates is that of maize (corn). Since the advent of maize hybrids, which are substantially higher yielding than non-hybrids, production in the United States has increased six-fold over the last 60 years. It's estimated that about half that gain is due to the genetic progress created by the introduction of hybrids.

WCR believes that hybrids hold great promise to revolutionize the coffee industry through genetic progress, the way they did for maize in the last century.

But for that progress to be realized, it must become both easier and cheaper to get hybrids into the hands of coffee farmers around the world. The creation of Starmaya is a signal that the future may be close at hand.

The Science Behind F1 Hybrids

In 1998, coffee breeders recognized that it would be theoretically possible to propagate F1 hybrids via seed if one of the parent plants were sterile. Placing two different fertile coffee varieties--the desired hybrid Mother and Father varieties --together in a typical field of coffee, the offspring would be all over the place. Some offspring would be the result of Mother to Mother crossing (offspring would look like the Mother), some Father to Father (offspring looks like the Father), and some would be Mother to Father (offspring hybrids of the two). This is an inefficient way to produce hybrid seed.

However, if one of the varieties in the field is sterile (it does not produce pollen), then any offspring (eg, coffee cherries, the product of sexual reproduction of the Mother and Father) that appear on male sterile plants must be hybrids between Mother and Father. Wind or pollinators would carry the pollen from the pollen-producing variety onto the sterile variety, and the resulting cherries would necessarily be hybrids. The challenge was to find a naturally male sterile plant that could be a suitable breeding parent.

In 2001, researchers from CIRAD collaborating in a coffee-breeding project with ECOM, noticed a male-sterile Arabica plant at the CATIE germplasm bank for coffee in Costa Rica. Breeders crossed it with Marsellesa, a newer-generation rust-resistant variety (Timor Hybrid 832/2 x Villa Sarchi CIFC 971/10). After observing good performance in field trials in Nicaragua, ECOM released the variety, calling it Starmaya. It is being tested in Nicaragua.

"We hope to incorporate Starmaya into a number of trial sites, including at our research farm in El Salvador and in other Central American countries in 2017 and 2018," said Hanna Neuschwander, communications director for WCR. "We aren't sure there's going to be enough seed for 2017, but for 2018 we will include it."
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Comment:Is a new variety the future of coffee? A new coffee variety--an F1 hybrid that is propagated by seed--named Starmaya may offer a glimpse into a much brighter future for the coffee plant.(SUSTAINING THE CHAIN)
Author:Facenda, Vanessa L.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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