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Tastier beverage

Coffee Genome Program opens database to researchers

EDUARDO CESARThe conclusion of the sequencing of the genome of Arabian coffee, announced officially by the Minister of Agriculture, Roberto Rodrigues, on August 10, opens up news prospects for improving the quality of the bean, increasing the productivity of the crops, and expanding the company’s exports. Brazil has been, historically, a leader in coffee research, but as coffee is a perennial crop, the process of introducing new varieties takes between 25 and 30 years. “Getting to know the genes involved in the plant’s resistance to water and diseases or in the quality of the beverage, for example, it will be possible to bring about improvements in a short period of time”, foresees Carlos Colombo, a researcher from the Campinas Agronomic Institute (IAC) and the coordinator of the Coffee Genome Program in São Paulo.

With a budget of R$ 1.9 million, the program was funded by the Brazilian Coffee Research and Development Consortium, made up by FAPESP, by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), and by another 20 research institutions. The researchers opted for using the technique of expressed sequence tags (ESTs) – pieces of genes that the plant actually uses during its metabolism for producing proteins – and not for sequencing the entire genome.

The researches resulted in the sequencing of 32,000 genes, out of a total of 40,000 or 50,000, and 155,000 sequences of DNA. This information has been gathered together in a database, managed by FAPESP and by Embrapa, to which 23 national research institutes will have access. “Under the agreement, Brazilian researchers will have priority in rummaging through and analyzing this data. For being public information, in 2006 the database will be open to foreign researchers and to private entities for consultation”, says Colombo. In this case, royalties will be charged. “We have to speed up the researches”, the coordinator of the program in São Paulo recommends.

The consortium is now analyzing projects on the functional analysis of coffee presented by the various accredited research institutes. The idea is to invest something around R$ 3 million in funding from 10 to 15 investigative projects that, it is foreseen, will make it possible, for example, to produce coffee that is more tolerant to drought, that resists pests, has more flavor and aroma, or controlled levels of caffeine, vitamins and mineral salts. FAPESP and Embrapa will share the ownership of the patents that may be generated in the projects. The two entities will share the National Genetic Resources Center (Cenargen) and the institution to which the researcher responsible for the project belongs.

“Coffee was once the flagship of our economy. We are now showing that Brazilian coffee continues in the vanguard”, said Minister Roberto Rodrigues, who took part in the ceremony at which the conclusion of the Coffee Genome Program was announced and the agreement signed that allows the research institutions to access the database. “We hope that new markets will be opened to Brazilian coffees. This research is going to benefit the whole productive chain, particularly the producers.”

Brazil produces about 31 million bags of processed coffee a year, accounts for 30% of world production, and is the largest exporter of beans. Coffee was responsible for 2% of Brazilian exports in 2003. Brazilian production loses in quality to Colombia, which harvests a better bean with higher price. The expectation is that the researches will result in the development of superior productive varieties to make it possible to contend for the market with Colombian coffee.