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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/GM Java

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on a new way to get the caffeine out of coffee.


CURWOOD: Coming up: the opposite of fast food. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.

[MUSIC: Science Note theme]

GRABER: Some people like their coffee decaffeinated. But getting the buzz out of the beans is an expensive process. It can be done chemically by adding a solvent to soaking beans. The caffeine bonds to the solvent and is flushed away.

But the down side is that the solvent becomes a waste disposal headache. One environmentally-benign process uses carbon dioxide, and another uses water to get the jive out of java. But coffee aficionados and roasters complain that the process leaves a bean that pales in comparison to its more robust, caffeinated cousin.

So, scientists are developing a genetically-modified plant that represses the enzyme that helps create caffeine in the first place. In one experiment, 35 transgenic seedlings were cultivated and had between 50 and 70 percent less caffeine than their wild cousins.

If the process can be replicated in the field it could eliminate the need for costly – and some say tasteless – caffeine removal systems. But critics worry that caffeine protects coffee plants from insects and herbivores and from harmful fungi. Some of these fungi produce toxins that can harm human health.

That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Cynthia Graber.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Parlour “The Living Beginning” Octopus Off-Broadway Temporary Residence (2002)]



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