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Breeding and Genetics Study Traces Arabica to Prehistoric Times

arabica coffee plant

Research commissioned by Nestlé suggests that the arabica coffee species was birthed 350,000-600,000 years ago through a natural mating between two different coffee species in the wild forests of what is now known as Ethiopia.

While this may be a fun bit of dinner party trivia, it also represents a breakthrough in the genome sequencing of arabica coffee, potentially unlocking secrets to future arabica genetic modification and breeding, according to an international consortium of researchers who wrote the study.

“We’ve used genomic information in plants alive today to go back in time and paint the most accurate picture possible of Arabica’s long history, as well as determine how modern cultivated varieties are related to each other,” study co-corresponding author Victor Albert of the University of Buffalo Department of Biological Sciences said in an announcement of the publication last month. “A detailed understanding of the origins and breeding history of contemporary varieties are crucial to developing new Arabica cultivars better adapted to climate change.”

The new study was published in April by the Springer Nature-owned journal Nature Genetics. 


Arabica coffee represents approximately 60% of global green coffee production, according to the most recent estimates from the USDA.

Despite coffee’s apparently ancient history, its genetic makeup has been largely unknown until the past decade. It was 10 years ago that some of the same researchers attached their names to a study that was declared the “first high-quality draft” of the robusta coffee species’ genome.

In 2017, a research team led by the University of California Davis published the first known sequence of the arabica genome.

In 2020, the nonprofit World Coffee Research and research collaborators on numerous continents published a study estimating that arabica’s birth took place somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.

And earlier this year, a separate international research group discovered significant chromosomal aberrations in the arabica genome that might lead to better understandings of the plant’s lack of genetic diversity and attributes such as quality.

It should be noted that at all of these studies have received funding from large multinational coffee and beverage companies, including names such as Lavazza, Illy and Suntory. The most recent study, which traces arabica’s birth back 600,000 years, was commissioned in part by Nestlé.

In an announcement of the findings, Nestlé Institute of Agricultural Sciences Director Jeroen Dijkman said, “This will help our plant scientists, and other experts to better identify, select and breed new and improved arabica coffee varieties.”

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