uOttawa scientists team up with global partners to secure your coffee’s future


Are you a fan of sipping a cup of coffee and enjoying its delightful fragrance? This popular beverage, loved by people worldwide, can be traced back to the humble coffee plant, specifically, the Coffea arabica species. How did this plant evolve into the drink we all know today? And what measures can we take to ensure its future?

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Coffea arabica is a widely-cultivated coffee species with a complex evolutionary history. Scientists from the University of Ottawa took part in a recent study that examined its genomic variations. The study discovered important genes associated with resistance to pathogens, providing valuable information on breeding opportunities and mechanisms for diversification.

A global team of 70 researchers from 15 different laboratories, including uOttawa’s bioinformatics lab, collaborated on this project. David Sankoff, full professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the Faculty of Science, worked alongside PhD candidate Zhe Yu, whose PhD thesis is related to this study. Likewise, Daniella Santos Muñoz conducted research for her master’s thesis in connection with the project. Other contributors included former PhD student Chunfang Zheng and visiting professor João Meidanis from Brazil.

The production of coffee, particularly Coffea arabica, renowned for its exceptional quality and taste, plays a significant role in the world economy. Researching the genomic and evolutionary history of this species is essential for enhancing breeding practices and ensuring the sustainability of coffee farming.

Sankoff highlight’s the project’s “detailed study of the evolution, genetics, geography and history of the Arabica coffee genome. The research carried out in our own lab delved into its connections with different coffee species, especially its beginnings as a hybrid with two separate sub-genomes and how it is responding to environmental obstacles, by examining changes in the sub-genomes.”

Genomics for disease-resistant coffee crops

The study discovered intricate gene clusters in Coffea arabica, pinpointing genomic areas associated with disease resistance, indicating potential methods to enhance the resilience of coffee plants.

“The field research was primarily conducted by teams in France and Brazil. Wet-lab experiments took place in Nestlé’s laboratory in Switzerland, while raw data was managed at Cornell University in the United States. The analysis was carried out by researchers from the United States, Finland, Singapore, France, Belgium, Italy and other locations, including our own laboratory. The writing process was mainly coordinated by Professor Jarkko Salojärvi in Singapore and Finland,” says Sankoff.

The variety of coffee plants available today underscores the significance of genetic diversity in coffee breeding. This diversity enables the development of superior coffee plants with enhanced flavour, higher yields and increased environmental sustainability.

The study’s genomic analysis sheds light on the evolutionary trajectory and genetic potential of Coffea arabica, offering resources for coffee breeding. Harnessing the power of genomics will help realize the potential of this beloved beverage crop and ensure its continued success in the face of rapidly evolving agricultural challenges from pathogens and climate warming.

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