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Safeguarding a Cuppa Joe

NSF Award:

Characterization of the Tomato Secretome Using Integrated Functional and Computational Strategies  (Cornell Univ - State: AWDS MADE PRIOR MAY 2010)

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The coffee berry borer beetle causes the coffee industry to lose $500 million annually and affects more than 17 million coffee farming families. While studying the genome of this beetle, scientists at Cornell University and Cenicafé, Colombia's national coffee institute, identified a bacterial gene that encodes an enzyme to digest the storage carbohydrate of coffee beans. This is a rare example of horizontal gene transfer (HGT)--the transfer of genes between non-similar organisms--from bacteria to an animal, and a clear evolutionary adaptation.

The finding is particularly unusual because the bacterial gene, which encodes a protein called mannanase, can be assigned a clear function that allows the beetle to adapt to a new ecological niche. Scientists speculate that intensive agricultural production may result in increased selective pressure for HGT. It also appears that secreted proteins, such as the mannanase, are particularly common in cases of HGT, which may reflect the importance of adapting to new external environments.

By focusing on the coffee beetle's bacterial gene, researchers may develop strategies that prevent production or activity of mannanase, thereby improving the survival of coffee plants.

In addition, although the molecular mechanism of HGT from bacteria to animals remains unknown, researchers have identified genetic elements called transposons on either side of the transferred mannanase gene. Transposons, or jumping genes, are mobile genetic elements that move from one location in the genome to another. The researchers theorize that the jumping genes may assist in the transfer process.

Images (1 of )

  • a coffee berry borer beetle
  • a colombian coffee plantation and borer beetle-infested coffee beans
A coffee berry borer beetle.
Ricardo Acuna, Cenicafe, Colombia
Beetle-infested coffee beans at a coffee plantation.
Ricardo Acuna, Cenicafe, Colombia

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