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

Genetically Modified Joe

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Nat Hansen)

One day soon, coffee beans might be grown free of caffeine. One biotech company hopes to genetically modify the plant so that the beans won’t need to be stripped of caffeine, because they won’t be making it to begin with. "The DNA Files" producer Julie Grant reports.


GELLERMAN: Soybeans aren’t the only thing grown in Brazil.

[MUSIC: Frank Sinatra “Coffee Song” from a You Tube video]

GELLERMAN: And it’s fair to say not one of those billions of beans is decaf - at least not ‘til it’s processed. But a small biotech company hopes to change that. It’s developing a coffee bean that has no caffeine. In a story originally produced for the radio project The DNA files, Julie Grant wakes up and smells the coffee.

(Photo: Nat Hansen)

GRANT: If you want to know the best ways to grow, roast, and serve coffee, or if you just want a really good cup, this is the place. It's the Specialty Coffee Association of America's annual conference. This year, it's at the Long Beach Convention Center in California. The center floor is lined with row after row of more than 500 vendors, looking to buy and sell their gourmet coffee goods. Some are showing off different beans they grow - a rainbow of pale greens, caramel colors, and deep browns. Some vendors are displaying huge stainless steel roasting machines, and others are serving up coffee - drink after drink after drink. It's enough stimulation to make you reach for a decaf - that's unless you're wary of the chemicals used to decaffeinate coffee beans.

RIVERA: We're going to talk about what goes on with roasting…

GRANT: Joseph Rivera is director of science and technology for the Coffee Association. He's teaching a class in decaffeination. Here's how it works. The green beans are steamed to soften and swell them. Then they're mixed in big stainless steel chambers with solvents.

RIVERA: It's just kind of a big laundry mat, if you will. Things are being
mixed up and swirled around.

GRANT: During all of that swirling, the caffeine molecules separate from the beans and attach to the solvents. They're siphoned out of the chamber, and what's left inside are the decaffeinated beans.

RIVERA: You have to realize that these beans have gone through a lot. They've been stressed out. They've been steamed. They've been beat up in these containers. They've been subjected to chemicals.

GRANT: Rivera says the chemical used in 60% of coffee decaffeinated in the U.S. is methylene chloride, the same stuff used in paint strippers and degreasers.

RIVERA: People don't like to hear that. [laughs] They don't like to hear that it's in paint remover. It's used in a number of different things.

GRANT: And Rivera says there's no denying that once you change the chemical make-up of the beans like this, you change the flavor of the coffee. That's where one scientist walking around the coffee conference sees his opening.

STILES: I'm John Stiles. I'm chief scientific officer for Integrated Coffee

GRANT: What is Integrated Coffee Technologies?

STILES: We're a small - I guess you'd say a boutique biotechnology company - that focuses on coffee and a few other tropical crops.

GRANT: Stiles says he prefers regular coffee to the decaf on the market today, including the decaf that's processed with water.

STILES: There's some really good methods for decaffeinating coffee now, but all of them change the flavor. There's no method that can take out just caffeine. You're never going to have the full flavor we all really love about really good coffee using a chemical process to take out the caffeine. Our approach--well, let's just not make caffeine, have everything else the same.

Genetically modifying coffee beans could eliminate the need to strip beans of caffeine. (Photo: Brian Lary)

GRANT: Apparently, it's not as easy as it sounds. So far, it's taken more than 15 years of development in the lab. Stiles grinds up the leaves of the coffee plants and extracts strands of a plant's DNA. From that, he says they've been able to locate the one gene that begins the plant's process of making caffeine.

STILES: We take the gene, and sort of turn it around backwards, and make it work in reverse.

GRANT: Normally, that caffeine-making gene sends out what's called messenger RNA, which goes from the nucleus into the body of the cell. There it's translated into the key enzyme that starts the caffeine making process. Flipping the gene around stops the process.

STILES: And so the enzyme doesn't get made. No enzyme, it can't do that first step, so no caffeine can be made.

GRANT: Stiles hopes to plant his decaf coffee trees in the field next year, and that's the next step in getting them approved for market. I'm Julie Grant.

GELLERMAN: Our story about decaf coffee beans is served up courtesy of SoundVision Productions in Berkeley, CA.



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