AI Helps Nestlé Develop Drought, Disease Resistant Coffee

APR 23, 2024

Scientists at Nestlé are using AI to map the genomic structure of arabica coffee plants to uncover genetic traits that would make crops more resistant to disease and drought.

There are more than 120 species of coffee, but according to Nestlé, 60% of the world's coffee production comes from the arabica plant.

Arabica, however, is more susceptible to rising temperatures and disease than other varieties.

Nestlé wants to breed new arabica varieties that are more resistant to disease and drought. The company's initiative responds to warnings about the climate crisis, which predict heightened droughts and diminished arable land for coffee cultivation.

To ensure the safety of the world’s most prominent coffee variety, Nestlé scientists collaborated with research institutes around the world to create a genomic database on the genetic blueprint of modern-day coffee plants.

They used AI tools and sequencing technologies to map the genetic origins of the arabica plant to try and uncover desirable traits to make future crops more invulnerable.

The scientists discovered that modern arabica coffee plants originated around 350,000 to 610,000 years ago as a hybrid between the ancestors of the coffea canephora and coffea eugenioides species.

They also uncovered a genomic trait that made the plant resistant to hemileia vastatrix, or coffee leaf rust disease, which kills off plants. The disease caused production issues on Latin American coffee farms in the mid-2010s.

The genomes the scientists identified like the disease resistance traits could be used to develop new arabica coffee varieties through targeted breeding. The genomes were published in a publicly available database.

Nestlé is already working with farmers to use the genomic data to create improved arabica varieties, with more than six million plantlets distributed in 2022 alone.

"In simple terms, our new reference is like a high-quality map of a big city,” said Jeroen Dijkman, head of Nestlé's Institute of Agricultural Sciences. “It will help us identify key genetic markers in the arabica genome that are responsible for specific traits in adult plants.”

“This will help our plant scientists and other experts to better identify, select and breed new and improved arabica coffee varieties.”

The research was co-directed with the French National Institute for Sustainable Development. Academic institutions from the U.S., Brazil, Singapore, Uganda and Finland also participated.