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Caffeine Eating Microbes

January 19, 2016

A major coffee pest consumes otherwise lethal doses of caffeine with help from a few of its friends.

Transcript

CBB_ESD Javier Ceja-Navarro

Don’t let the coffee berry borer ruin your day. (Illustration: Javier Ceja-Navarro)

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Coffee’s beetle battle. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The next time you pour yourself a cup of Joe to start your day, consider this: the coffee plant actually produces caffeine as a toxin to ward off hungry pests. But the tiny coffee berry borer beetle has evolved to withstand caffeine’s jolt.

JAVIER CEJA-NAVARRO (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory):

The insect is living its whole life surrounded by caffeine. While feeding on the coffee seed, it would expose itself to the same amount that a human will consume when drinking 500 shots of espresso. And that amount will definitely kill any human.

HIRSHON:

That’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher Javier Ceja-Navarro. His team has discovered the insect’s secret: a handful of gut microbes that break down caffeine, rendering it harmless. Studying how they do it could one day help control the pest, which causes $500 million dollars in crop losses every year. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

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Story by Susanne Bard