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Genetically Modified Decaffeinated Coffee
by John Harmon
October 12, 2003

Authors own non-GMO Yukon grown Kona coffee plants

I love the way the world has turned out. It's beginning to be just like the science fiction books I loved and spent most of the 60's reading. The books contained fantastic fiction worlds where both plants and animals were designed to do men's bidding. We, as mankind, or is it personkind now, have cloned animals for no apparent reason other than the fact that we can. We have added fish genes to tomato plants and no one is really sure what else scientists have cooking in their cauldrons.

Some of what scientists have created in the lab is designed to save the world or ease suffering and it's difficult to knock them for trying. Things like a new variety of rice with more vitamins and protein that will give higher yields to feed the hungry. Plants have been created that are "naturally" resistant to bugs and disease after modification of course. Plants that are supposed to make more money for producers in countries where the government pays farmers to leave fields fallow because of overproduction. Sometimes it just doesn't make any sense.

Some of the experiments haven't turned out so well though. GMO (genetically modified organisms) soybeans are responsible for the deaths of people in Japan a few years back. Seems that there are not any easy or "sure fire" methods that will guarantee complete safety. You take your chances and hope for the best seems to be the mantra.

I have always been fascinated by the science involved even though I'm not happy about the way it's done and fail to see the desperate need for GMO plants regardless of what their creators intended for them. You would think that as a species we would learn from our mistakes. Now the scientists in Japan have created another plant that they will get to try out on humans in another four years or so.

It's the first genetically modified decaffeinated coffee plant. The researchers managed to reduce the activity of key caffeine-making genes in the coffee species Coffea canephora. (According to the World Alliance of Gourmet Robustas, Coffea canephora, the robusta plant, does not compare unfavorably with Coffea arabica, and is capable of producing another type of specialty coffee with different, though equally distinguished qualities and characteristics).

The method of this modification could be viewed as "mild". They didn't add any fish genes or cause the plant to produce it's own toxins to repel insects like they have done with corn plants. They just inhibited a couple of genes that are responsible for caffeine production. The result was a plant containing 70% less caffeine than normal coffee.

Writing in the journal Nature, the Japanese scientists said that in the near future caffeine-free beans could be cultivated to meet the growing demand for decaffeinated coffee. My question is why bother? Scientists at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology sum up the reason and stated. "Full strength coffee can raise blood pressure and trigger palpitations in sensitive individuals. For many people, decaffeinated coffee is the answer. But producing it is expensive, and the flavor is not as good as "real" coffee". Why not just quit drinking coffee if it's doesn't agree with you?

Coffee is currently stripped of caffeine in an expensive industrial process. Carbon dioxide or organic solvents (what the hell are "organic" solvents?) flush the caffeine from beans, often along with other key flavor compounds. The resulting taste can be lees than satisfying. The alternative is the more costly Swiss Water Process that sieves out caffeine through a carbon filter, leaving a coffee that tastes more like the real thing.

Shinjiro Ogita and colleagues at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology wrote, "At present, coffee is decaffeinated industrially, but the process is expensive and the flavor of the product is poor - problems that could potentially be overcome by the genetic engineering of coffee plants". These scientists claim that coffee beans harvested from the GMO coffee plants should be "essentially normal" aside from their reduced caffeine. The team is now applying the same technique to Coffea arabica, the plant that produces high quality Arabica coffee and accounts for some 70% of the world market.

If you want to know exactly which genes they messed with check out

http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/nature/journal/v423/n6942/abs/423823a_fs.html

I have only one more comment on Japanese scientists: Aren't they responsible for Godzilla?

 

 

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