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Naturally Decaffeinated

Brazilian researchers discover mutant coffee plants without any stimulating substance

A mutation that occurred in wild plants of the Coffea arabica species has resulted in a naturally decaffeinated coffee, with the aroma and taste preserved. The discovery of this natural alteration in some plants, made by three Brazilian researchers, was prominently reported on June 24 in the British magazine Nature . The search for coffee without caffeine has mobilized scholars from all over the world, to meet the growing demand from people who want to be free from the side effects caused by this stimulant, such as insomnia and increased blood pressure. Decaffeinated coffee accounts today for about 10% of the world market for coffee.

The caffeine is removed by three different processes. But, in all of them, other compounds, responsible for the flavor and aroma of the beverage, are removed together with the caffeine.To arrive at the three plants with insignificant quantities in their seeds, Paulo Mazzafera, from the Biology Institute of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), Maria Bernadete Silvarolla and Luiz Carlos Fazuoli, both from the Campinas Agronomic Institute (IAC), analyzed, one by one, 3,000 coffee plants.

The seeds were collected in Ethiopia, in Africa, by Brazilian researchers who were there in 1964, at the invitation of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). At the time, the institution was concerned with the eradication of areas of forests where coffee bushes were growing spontaneously. That is why they sponsored researchers from several countries, to rescue this genetic material, before it was lost. “When you want to find genetic variability, you have to go to the center of origin”, says Mazzafera. The Brazilians brought seeds of 300 plants, which later originated other specimens that then became part of the IAC’s Germplasm Bank.

Long journey

The process for finding the plants with least caffeine is described by Mazzafera as “looking for a needle in a haystack”. This comparison sums up the long path that started in 1987 at the IAC, when a program for the genetic improvement of the coffee bush was started. “There was cross-breeding between wild species of coffee with a low caffeine content with varieties of C. arabica , but some characteristics that were of no interest were passed on to the offspring plants”, he reports. As they saw that it would be practically inviable to achieve any progress in this way, the researchers began to analyze the representatives of C. arabica present in the genetic seed bank, amongst them the material from Ethiopia. These started to be analyzed in 1996. Identification took place at the end of last year. The research received funding from FAPESP, from the Brazilian Coffee Research and Development Consortium, coordinated by Embrapa Coffee, and from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development.

To be called decaffeinated, a coffee has to have over 97% of its caffeine removed. The three plants identified, baptized as AC1, AC2 and AC3, show 0.07% of caffeine, while common coffee has about 1.2%. The designation of AC is in homage to the IAC’s coffee geneticist, Alcides Carvalho, who died in 1993.The next stage of the research consists of following two paths. One of them is to assess how plants produced from seed and from seedlings (clones produced from parts of the stems of these plants) behave in the field.

Productivity and the price that the market will be able to pay for this differentiated product will be assessed. With this data, the seeds will be released, or not, in five or six years, to be planted by the farmers. The other path is to transfer the characteristics of AC1, 2 and 3 to highly productive commercial varieties of the arabica species. This process may take up to 15 years, which is a period regarded as short, because the crossbreeding will take place only within C. arabica . Mazzafera says that some coffee plants, to reach the market, are the fruit of 35 years of crossbreeding. For consumers who cannot do without a cup of coffee with aroma and flavor, but who have to keep far away from the effects of caffeine, it appears that the wait will be worth it.