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  • Writer's pictureHirokazu Kobayashi

If you want to enjoy decaf, modify the tree itself! *

Hirokazu Kobayashi

CEO, Green Insight Japan, Inc.

Professor Emeritus and Visiting Professor, University of Shizuoka

As we age, the toilet becomes closer, making it harder to feel satisfied with our sleep. Caffeine is one of the orally ingested factors that have an adverse effect. Caffeine is found in coffee and tea, and in addition to being alert, it also has diuretic effects. Incidentally, the substance in chocolate and cocoa is called theobromine, structurally similar to caffeine, but its effects are weaker than those of caffeine. Even if you are a coffee, green tea, or black tea drinker, the elderly, pregnant women, and breastfeeding women should be careful about caffeine. Also, a high intake of caffeine is not recommended for children. Decaf means that coffee does not contain caffeine, and it is estimated that 20% of coffee and tea consumers desire decaf. Decaf coffee and tea are already available worldwide, but these have lost their flavor and taste components and are not tasty. This is because during the manufacturing process, caffeine is removed by hot water extraction, but flavor and taste components are also removed along with the caffeine. Removing caffeine alone is still difficult at a commercial level.

Shizuoka Prefecture is a tea area where I have lived for over 30 years. So I thought it was my turn. Using knockout (KO)-type genome editing technology, it is theoretically possible to produce tea leaves and coffee beans that do not lose their flavor and taste components and are free of caffeine alone. Knockout here means to destroy a gene. Genome editing, which was the subject of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is a technology that utilizes the foreign enemy defense system of bacteria to cut genetic information at specific positions in DNA. This makes it possible to destroy only particular genes in plants and animals. These mutations are equivalent to those that occur in nature, and the resulting mutants are eaten. In 2019, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in Japan allowed food made using this technology to be cultivated, aquacultured, and sold with just notification. In other words, this technology can stop the function of the gene that controls caffeine synthesis. However, applying this technology to coffee and tea plants was difficult, and three years had already been spent researching and developing tea plants. The global coffee market is worth an estimated 20 trillion yen (equivalent to 130 billion US dollars), and that for tea is 9 trillion yen (equivalent to 60 billion US dollars). If 20% of these people want decaf, that's a huge market.

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