Photo by Renatomitra via Flickr/Creative Commons
Photo by Renatomitra via Flickr/Creative Commons

Coffee: Millions of Years of Poison and Brain Manipulation

Many people think of coffee simply as an absolute necessity in the morning. But it’s also a fascinating piece of natural history. Here we have a plant that produces a potent chemical–caffeine–that can snap our brains to attention in low doses and kill us in big doses. Why on Earth would some Ethiopian bean go to such great lengths? For my Matter column this week in the New York Timesmy Matter column this week in the New York Times, I take a look at a new study that offers some answers.

The study is, in fact, the sequencing of the coffee genome. Normally, I’m very leery of genome papers–I come down with a disorder I’ve dubbed YAGS. But sometimes the scientists who sequence a genome also discover some interesting things in it. Such is the case with coffee: the scientists were able to test some hypotheses for how caffeine evolved. The scenario they propose is an elegant combination of gene duplication and convergence. And it can help scientists to figure out exactly what kind of benefits caffeine offers plants that could fuel its evolution not just in coffee, but in other species like tea and cacao as well. Check it out.