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  Researchers Identify Caffeine Gene

By Matthew Fordahl
AP Science Writer
Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2000; 2:00 p.m. EDT

Genetic engineering may hold the key to making decaffeinated coffee that doesn't taste like dishwater.

Scientists have identified a gene in the coffee plant that is key to the synthesis of caffeine. They hope eventually to produce a genetically engineered coffee plant in which the gene has been shut down.

The research was conducted by Alan Crozier, a professor of plant products and human nutrition at the University of Glasgow, and colleagues in Japan. It was published Thursday in the journal Nature.

Today's decaf often suffers because of the caffeine extraction process, which involves steaming the beans, washing them in organic solvents or subjecting them to other procedures after the coffee cherry has been picked from the tree.

"The decaffeination processes, particularly with organic solvents, do not just take out most of the caffeine, they also take out some of the aroma and flavor," Crozier said. "So to an espresso addict like myself, decaf tastes like dishwater."

The genetic change would not alter the flavor. That's good news for people who love coffee but can't stand the taste of decaf or the effects of caffeine, which include heart palpitations, anxiety, high blood pressure and insomnia.

But is the world ready for genetically altered java?

"We've got to get past this scare-mongering that's going on about the growth of genetically modified produce," Crozier said.

The Glasgow researcher and his colleagues are waiting for additional money to create caffeine-free plants. So far, no coffee or tea companies have jumped at the opportunity.

"We're looking for some commercial support, and I anticipate it would take us five years for us to produce the plants and get them grown on any scale," he said.

Researchers at the University of Hawaii and Integrated Coffee Technologies Inc. also are developing genetically engineered coffee plants, but their process involves a different gene and earlier stages of caffeine synthesis.

Integrated Coffee hopes to be selling plants in 2003, with the first commercial harvest in 2006.

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On the Net: University of Glasgow: http://www.gla.ac.uk/

Nature: http://www.nature.com

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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