The buzz on caffeine in coffee: A genetic quirk

(Reuters/File 2013)

WASHINGTON — Scientists have analyzed the DNA of coffee and found that what we love about coffee — the caffeine — is a genetic quirk, not related to the caffeine in chocolate or tea.

‘‘It’s an accident that has been frozen in place, very likely by the influence of natural selection,’’ said University of Buffalo evolutionary biologist Victor Albert.

He and more than 60 other researchers from around the world mapped the genetic instruction book of java. Their results were published Thursday in the journal Science.

Albert said researchers discovered that caffeine developed separately in coffee, tea, and chocolate because it is in different genes in different areas of plants’ genomes.


But once coffee mutated to have caffeine — not just in the bean, there’s even more in the leaves — it turned out to be a good thing for the plant, Albert said. Bugs don’t chew on the coffee plant because they don’t like the caffeine, but pollinators like bees do.

‘‘So pollinators come back for more — just like we do for our cups of coffee,’’ Albert said, admitting he also likes the buzz it brings.

‘‘It wakes me up every morning,’’ Albert said. ‘‘I wouldn’t be able to do all this fabulous work on coffee if it weren’t for the coffee itself.’’

A University of North Carolina plant genomics professor, Jeff Dangl, who was not part of the study, notes that ‘‘natural selection to help coffee plants deter insects turned out so well for us.’’

But, he adds, ‘‘unfortunately, coffee is now under epidemic attack by pathogens that are not deterred by caffeine, and we need all the clever genetics and genomics to save it.’’