It is to be assumed that we all have by now seen Jurassic Park or one of its many sequels, the film franchise exploring the idea of science doing what it can without regard for if it should. It’s a morality tale with big CGI dinosaurs, The Island of Dr. Moreau but for kids. Well, you know who apparently has not seen any of these fine works of cinema? Researchers at the Imperial College of London, that’s who, because they just decided to reanimate a coffee-killing fungus. What could possibly go wrong?
Per Science Daily, researchers brought back to life cryogenically frozen samples of a fungus that causes Coffee Wilt Disease to “understand how new types of diseases evolve.” First appearing in the 1920s in Central Africa, Coffee Wilt Disease can attack both Arabica and Robusta. As the name suggests, the vascular disease causes leaves of the coffee plant to wilt, leading ultimately to the death of the infected tree. In the century since its discovery, the fungus leading to Coffee Wilt Disease has caused two epidemics, one in the 1920s-1950s and another in the 1990s-2000s. Since the last outbreak, the disease have been mostly eradicated, limited now to only Eastern and Central Africa.
So the scientists decided now was a good time to bring it back.
In a study published recently in the journal BMC Genomics, researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Oxford, and the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) “re-awakened” six different strains of the fungus: two from the first outbreak and two each from two more recent coffee-specific strains. With the strains alive again—contained within a secure lab at CABI, with absolutely no possibility of a lab leak, no way that could ever happen—researchers were then able to sequence the fungi’s genomes in order to “[examine] their DNA for evidence of changes that could have helped them infect these specific coffee varieties.”
In the sequencing, they found that the genes to be “highly similar” to that of a different fungus that affects over 120 different crops, including bananas, which are often grown together so that the taller banana trees can provide and canopy (and micro-climate) for the shade-grown coffee trees. Researchers were also able to identify specific genes in the more recent fungal samples that could help it “overcome plants’ defenses and survive within the plants to trigger disease.”
The reborn fungi are also being used to infect coffee plants in a controlled lab environment to study the mechanisms of how the fungus affects the plants. The hope is to better understand how the diseases evolve in order to create sustainable ways to combat them and eventually create “a ‘rule book’ of how pathogenicity evolves,” according to lead author Lily Peck.
Using ever-higher volumes of chemicals and fungicides to fight emerging crop diseases is neither sustainable nor affordable for many growers… If we can instead understand how new types of diseases evolve, we can give growers the knowledge they need to reduce the risk of new diseases emerging in the first place.
This all sounds fine.