Espresso envy: how the coffee borer survives caffeine overdoses

Caffeine has long been a favorite of toxicologists, both for the jolt of focus needed to read long scientific treatises and for its unique status in the regulations of the world. You see, that dark, rich espresso or tall cup of steaming joe you enjoy in the morning is actually “toxic” if you follow the definitions that apply for industrial chemicals. Well, not the coffee itself, but the 1,3,7-Trimethylpurine-2,6-dione in it. That’s the scientific name for caffeine (see? you need a cuppa already).

In spite of the toxicological status of caffeine, coffee is a beverage lauded for health benefits and enjoyed by humans the world over. Unfortunately, we are in competition with the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei) for our beans. Scientists looking for an ecologically friendly way to combat the tiny pest are asking themselves

“How does this tiny coffee pest live on a diet of coffee equivalent to 500 espressos?”

Investigación y Desarrollo/Promo image

The answer points to the amazing power of the gut microbiome. Scientists originally found that coffee borers from around the world share a set of only 19 bacteria. More recent research shows that some of these microbes can survive on coffee alone. What’s more, if you kill off these microbes, the coffee borer loses the ability to digest the caffeine. Re-introducing the microbes returns the coffee borer to the status of record-breaking caffeine consumer.

Researcher Javier A. Ceja Navarro says “We look to take away the beetle’s taste for coffee and for it to be affected by consuming it like any other insect would.” If scientists succeed, the coffee borer will have to go to bed like all the rest of us, looking forward to the new day with a fresh coffee ritual.