The coffee genome reveals the evolutionary story behind our favourite pick-me-upRead More
Along with millions of others around the world you can find a good supply of coffee in the Notch office. Coffee starts the day for millions of people and it can be found in almost every workplace, kitchen and commuter train around the world, which isn’t surprising seeing as we drink over 2.25 billion cups every day. In the UK each year we consume 1.7 kg of coffee per person, compared to 3.1 kg in the USA and a huge 9.6 kg in Finland! As well as being one of the most popular and valuable commodities in the world coffee is also a vast $173 billion industry.
However, new research published earlier this month by the University of Buffalo shows that not only is coffee special economically, but it turns out that it’s genetic background is pretty special too!
This month the University of Buffalo published the first ever genome sequence of the coffee plant Coffea canephora, commonly known as Robusta coffee. The first study of the genome of coffee has revealed some interesting insights into the evolutionary history of the species and in particular the story behind the production of caffeine.
What makes the evolutionary history of coffee so interesting is the evolution of caffeine production. The coffee genome encodes a large group of caffeine producing enzymes, N-methyl transferases, which appear to be unique to the coffee plant with no relationship to other caffeine producing plants. Both tea and cacao (chocolate) produce caffeine, however the differences in the genomes show that caffeine production in coffee evolved completely independently. The separate evolutionary paths also explain why the method of caffeine evolution appears to be entirely different. As opposed to other caffeine-producing plants where there was a huge genome-wide duplication event, in coffee there was a series of small duplications and differentiations that eventually led to caffeine production.
So, if two independent evolutionary paths have both led to caffeine production then the question we must ask is: how and why?
There appear to be many advantages to plants producing caffeine that vary depending on where the caffeine is produced. When caffeine is produced in the leaves it is a strong insecticide and defence mechanism that repels insects from eating the foliage. Caffeine produced in the seeds and fruit could be used to stunt the growth of neighbouring competitors to set a growth advantage. Finally there is new evidencethat suggests pollinating insects can develop a caffeine habit much like humans, insects are more likely to revisit a plant if it produced caffeine.
So why is it important for us to know more about the genetics of coffee?
Firstly knowing more about the genome of coffee could lead to a better tasting coffee. The sequencing of the coffee genome has revealed the location of alkanoid and flavonoid genes that are responsible for the characteristic aroma and bitterness of coffee. However a better tasting cup is not the only benefit.
Importantly, we may be able to develop strains of coffee that are more resistant to disease and climate change and make it a more reliable crop. Over 125 million people depend on the coffee industry for their livelihood and 90% of the production is in the developing world. By developing more stable strains that can withstand drought and disease we could give security of income to those that rely most on the coffee industry.
So whether you’re a coffee hater or a caffeine-addict, coffee is an incredibly special and important plant to both biology and the economy.
Let me know what you think @GabyAtNotch. Are you a fellow coffee lover
Train Your Brain to Prefer Healthy FoodRead More
The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes obesity as one of today’s most blatantly visible, yet also most neglected public health problems. There are many statistics to support this claim, for example obesityamong adults in the UK has doubled over the past 10 years and it now looks set to plague another generation, as a staggering 10% of 4 to 5-year old children were found to be clinically obese in 2012.
The primary target of blame for this global epidemic is the currently rampant market of fast and highly processed junk foods. Is it any surprise with the price and availability of these high calorie meals that people aren’t opting for the healthier options?
We aren’t born craving these unhealthy foods, so there must be environmental factors influencing this behaviour. This gives some promise that it’s something we can control or change. So, what does it take for you to swap the burgers and pizza for fruit and veg?
Many people describe their eating habits as a vicious cycle, the more high carb, salty and sugaryfoods they consume, the more they seem to crave them. It may sound like an excuse, but according to new research published in the Journal of Nutrition and Diabetes, there may be an element of truth to this theory.
A study was conducted at Tufts University with a group of 13 clinically overweight and obese adults. Eight of them were enrolled in a new weight loss program call the iDiet, which involves behaviour change education, lessons on portion control and high fibre, low glycaemic meal plans. At the beginning of the study all 13 participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans. During the scan the researchers noted the differences in activity of the striatum (part of the brain associated with reward) when the participant was presented with images of low-calorieand high calorie foods. In this initial scan, they found that all participants showed a much higher response to the unhealthier food options.
The control and experimental groups then underwent a follow-up scan after 6 months. They found an increased sensitivity of the striatum to the lower calorie foods and a decreased response for the higher calorie foods among the participants in the weight loss program. So not only did they have a more positive reaction to the healthier foods, they showed a decreased desire for the unhealthier foods. These are two effects which scientists believe, when combined, could be critical in weight loss.
These findings therefore demonstrate the potential to reverse the cycle of unhealthy eating by retraining your brain to crave healthier options. This approach would be an improvement on normal fad diets, as it would be a lifestyle change rather than a temporary cover-up. It could even be an alternative to medical procedures, such as gastric bypass surgeries.
Gastric bypass surgery is an invasive procedure used to treat extreme cases of obesity. The end result of the operation is a reduction of volume of the stomach. Aside from the invasive nature, there are many other drawbacks to this operation. After the surgery there is a long recovery period and many patients claim that eating is no longer a pleasurable experience for them. If proven to work, this diet program could be a viable alternative to the procedure, as it doesn’t remove the enjoyment from eating; it would just be achieved through eating healthier foods instead.
This study demonstrates a positive shift in the activation of a part of the reward system in the brain towards healthier foods after the behavioural intervention. As exciting a prospect as this is, there is still much more research that needs to be done. The study was only carried out on 13 people over 6 months; firstly a larger, longer spanning study needs to be conducted to determine whether the benefits are long-term and apply to individuals of different ages, races and backgrounds. While this study focussed on the striatum, there are other parts of the brain’s reward system that could also be investigated as well, to find the full effect of this program.
This study has presented a promising avenue for behavioural treatments of obesity, but with simple carbohydrates in processed foods triggering a similar response in the nucleus accumbens (the pleasure centre in the brain) as cocaine and heroin, it’s still going to be a difficult process requiring commitment and willpower to gradually make the change.
Would you be up to the challenge? Let me know @PranikaAtNotch
What Is The Ice Bucket Challenge For?Read More
After asking around almost everyone has heard of, or done, the Ice Bucket Challenge but very few knew exactly what ALS was. On 29th July the Ice Bucket Challenge was started as a campaign to raise awareness for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and it has done exactly that. In a matter of weeks ALS has gone from being an almost unheard of illness to donationsexceeding $108.4 million.
The popularity of the ice bucket challenge on social media has been helped by a multitude of celebrities joining in to help raise awareness. Over 500 famous faces have thrown ice water over themselves in the name of charity including: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Aniston, Steven Spielberg, Kate Moss, Justin Bieber, Gordon Ramsay, Bill Gates, George W. Bush and Kermit the Frog.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Motor Neurone disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes muscle spasticity, progressive weakness and gradual difficulty in speaking, breathing and swallowing. It is estimated that 30, 000 people in the US are currently suffering with ALS with an estimated life expectancy of just 39 months after diagnosis.
The difficulty with studying ALS is that the cause is relatively unknown, 90-95% of cases show no links to genetics or risk factors leaving just 5-10% of cases that appear to be inherited. In the majority of inherited cases a mutation exists in either of the genes C9ORF72 or SOD1 (copper-zinc superoxide dismutase 1).
The good news is that some of the studies into potential treatments for ALS have had several breakthroughs in recent months.
One particular 8-year long study at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute reached a breakthrough earlier this summer. In 2007 the study established that glial cells are involved in the degeneration during ALS, this year they reported that the change occurs in the prostanoid receptors of the glial cells to cause the degeneration of neurons. The team has already established that inhibition of the receptor causes the glial cells to lose their toxicity. This discovery is the beginning of potential new research into using the prostanoid receptor as a drug target for the treatment of ALS.
Studies into a genetic form of ALS at the Mayo Clinic and The Scripps Research Institute have developed a possible strategy to combat ALS in patients with the C9OF72 gene mutation. This mutation causes a build up of abnormal RNA in the brain and spinal cord, which is toxic. The team identified this RNA as a potential drug target and developed a molecule that binds to the RNA to prevent it clumping together. As well as being a drug target the RNA can also be used as a biomarker to aid diagnosis and monitoring of the disease.
Oregon State University has also been studying a genetic form of ALS and researchers have identified the link between the mutation in SOD1 and the degeneration of motor neurones. The mutated SOD1 protein lacks the copper and zinc cofactors, which causes it to unfold; this unfolded form of SOD1 is toxic and causes the death of the motor neurones. To reverse the toxicity of the unfolded protein the proper balance of copper has to be restored in the brain and spinal cord. The team used a copper compound that’s been known for decades to restore the copper in mice and extended the lifespan of the mice with ALS by 26%.
Although we have not reached a cure yet, the breakthroughs in research are promising. Importantly the Ice Bucket Challenge is raising enough money to really make a difference and will no doubt play an important role in the next stages of some of this research.
So keep up the donating and tweet me @GabyAtNotch with your Ice Bucket Challenge!
Image source (www.techtimes.com)