Coffee Bean Boring Beetle May Be So Destructive Because Of 'Jumping Genes' That Crossed Species Barrier

By Rhonda J. Miller on January 2, 2014 9:34 AM EST

Coffee Crops Threatened By Bean Boring Beetle
A Colombian coffee plantation and borer beetle infested coffee beans. (Credit: Ricardo Acuna, Cenicafe, Colombia)

Tiny beetles that bore into coffee beans to lay their eggs and do $500 million of damage annually to coffee crops around the world are the target of plant biologists at Cornell University collaborating with Cenicafe, Columbia's national coffee institute, to find ways to get rid of the pest.

The pin-head sized beetle known as the coffee berry borer, or Hypothenemus hampei, has hit hard in Colombia, the world's second largest supplier of Arabica beans after Brazil. To confront the destruction by the coffee bean boring beetle, Cornell University researcher Jocelyn K.C. Rose is applying findings from studies in his plant biology laboratory to the stubborn coffee insect problem, according to research by the National Science Foundation reported on Live Science.

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Rose and his researchers identified a gene within the coffee beetle genome that encodes an enzyme called mannanase, which can digest the storage carbohydrates of coffee beans. That gene apparently originated from bacteria, Live Science reported. "Finding the sequence was a surprise because a mannanase gene hadn't been found in an insect before," says Rose. "Although it was present in the beetle genome, the sequence had several hallmarks of a bacterial gene." Gene transfer is common among bacteria, but considered rare between bacteria and multi-cellular organisms, the researchers said.

The Cornell scientists also identified genetic elements called transposons, or 'jumping genes,' on either side of the transferred mannanase gene. Jumping genes move from one location in the genome to another and may have assisted in the transfer process, the researchers theorize. The unusual finding about the jumping genes may provide new insight toward solving the problem with the invasive beetle.

The notoriously destructive coffee beetle is increasingly causing problems in China, according a Dec. 31, 2013 report in the China Post.About 40 hectares of coffee fields in the Gukeng area of Yunlin County are reportedly being savaged by borer beetles, the Gukeng Township Office reported on Dec. 30. 2013. Authorities in the Chinese region hit by the beetles are planning to strengthen farm management in an attempt to stem the tide of the infestation.

Chinese authorities "stressed that farm management is the key to control the borer beetles' damage, adding that every procedure is strictly managed by farmers until the coffee beans are picked, and the farmers associations have already distributed traps to farmers for capturing beetles," according to the China Post. The hundreds of plastic bottles tied with traps scattered among the coffee fields in Gukeng, have worked well, the township office said, Every time they check the bottles they discover lots of borer beetles stuck inside them.

A Gukeng Farmers' Association member said the borer beetles drill into the coffee beans and sustain themselves on the pulp. TheGukeng Township Office said the coffee borer beetle is among the most harmful pests to coffee crops, causing damage to anywhere between 20 to 50 percent of the 2013 coffee crop. But they actually might be underestimating the damage; according to a 2012 study published in the journal Insecticides - Advances in Integrated Pest Management, "Hypothenemus hampei causes yield losses as high as 40-80% at a field infestation of 90%...Coffee prices are greatly reduced when the beans exhibit Hypothenemus hampei ..."

The study also lays out some details of these tiny crop killers:

"The adult female coffee berry borer is a small black beetle, 1.5 millimeters in length, longer and slightly wider than the male. Its entire immature life stages are spent inside the coffee berry. Males mate inside the berry with females and never emerge. Males live between 50 and 75 days, while females from 100 to 150 days. The female beetle enters the coffee berry and bores a tunnel inside the coffee bean where it lays eggs at a rate of 2-3 per day up to 20 days."

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