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article imageGut bacteria provide coffee berry borers with super-resistance

By Tim Sandle     Jul 16, 2015 in Science
New York - Scientists have worked out why coffee berry borers manage to cause so much damage to coffee plants around the world, despite being exposed to high levels of caffeine that would ordinarily be toxic. The answer is bacteria.
The coffee berry borer is a destructive pest causing damage to coffee plants around the world. The borer (Hypothenemus hampei) is a beetle, originates in Africa, is black in color and lives for up to 190 days (for females) and 40 days (for males).
The beetle tends to prefer Coffea Arabica. To cause damage the beetle burrows into the coffee bean and lays eggs; when the larvae hatch they proceed to digest the bean, rendering the bean useless for coffee production. In some areas, the beetles can devastate 80 percent of the crops in a given area.
Control measures include insecticide, although this is only effective before the female beetle burrows into a bean; quarantining of crops; and border controls.
One thing that has puzzled scientists is how a beetle can consume such high quantities of caffeine, given the size of the beetle. To most other organisms such quantities would be toxic. For example, the amount of caffeine consumed would be equivalent to a 150-pound person drinking 500 shots of espresso.
The answer comes down to the bacteria located in the guts of the beetle. These bacteria are able to rapidly process caffeine and detoxify it, thus causing no apparent harm to the beetle. This was found out by examining hundreds of beetles from plantations around the world, found to inhabit different coffee plants. The types of bacteria discovered were examined by molecular biological methods.
The identified bacterium is a Pseudomonas species. The organism possesses a gene called caffeine demethylase, which enables the bacterium to process caffeine and to degrade it.
This understanding could lead to new ways of tackling the beetle. If the bacteria could be disrupted in some way so that they breakdown the caffeine less, then the caffeine would potentially be toxic to the beetle and this could stop the progress of the beetle through a coffee plantation.
The findings have been published in the journal Nature Communications. The research paper is titled “Gut microbiota mediate caffeine detoxification in the primary insect pest of coffee.”
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