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The Evolution of Caffeine

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A few years ago, we posted a blog series that discussed different aspects of specialty coffee, such as how to buy a quality espresso machine, or what makes a latte cost $3.75. Four years later, we’ve decided to bring back the blog! Welcome to the first return post of the Kiva Han Coffee Blog.

Today, we’re starting with the reason many people choose to consume coffee in the first place: caffeine. Although we love coffee for all of its beautiful complexity, for many people, the jolt it provides is the beverage’s crowning feature. However, have you ever paused over your morning cup long enough to wonder why plants like coffee and tea produce the caffeine chemical in the first place? Plants don’t have to sit through post-lunch meetings or stay up late studying for exams, so why do they need caffeine?

According to this article from the New York Times, a 2014 study published in Science shows that caffeine acts as both a defensive weapon and an offensive strategy. Scientists were able to map the genome of Coffea canephora, and this article explains their discoveries in layman’s terms, including how the caffeine compound developed in coffee over thousands of years of evolution.

It seems that caffeine can contaminate the soil around the coffee plant, making it hard for other kinds of plants to encroach on its territory, as well as ward off predatory insects that would eat the plant, rather than spread its pollen. On the offensive side, nectar that contains caffeine can leave a stronger imprint on a pollinating insect’s memory, making it more likely to revisit the coffee plant and increase pollination.

Now that we know the level of work and dedication it takes for a plant to evolve into a caffeine-producer, I think we should all give coffee a huge round of applause for figuring out how to produce such a delightful chemical compound in the most delicious vehicle possible.

If you’ve got a caffeine-induced craving for science and want to read the original study in the journal Science, it can be found here!

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