UNH Undergrad Seeks To Produce First Genetically Decaffeinated Tea Plant

Sep 24, 2014

Genetic engineering of plants has come a long way in recent years. It was first used to make more robust crops, then more nutritious and efficient crops. Now, scientists at the University of New Hampshire are tweaking tea plants to create an un-caffeinated variety.

Camellia sinensis is the plant from which virtually all caffeinated teas derive. UNH neuroscience major Laura Van Beaver has been working to flip one particular gene like a switch, which changes the plant in a significant way.

“…then it essentially isn’t functional because it’s in the wrong direction. And it will stop the biosynthetic pathway of the production of caffeine.

RL: And in layman’s terms that means…

That caffeine won’t be produced.”

You heard right. Genetically decaffeinated tea. The process was first demonstrated in Japan on coffee. Van Beaver is essentially following the same procedure. She’s isolated the gene and the school lab already has a means of introducing it to a tea plant.

“Yea, let’s see the gun. The gene gun.”

Professor Subhash Minocha shows me a metal box about the size of a waste basket connected by a tube to a tall air tank. The target is a petri dish of plant cells.

"Tea is the most widely drunk beverage on earth."

Minocha loads the gene gun with a tiny dab of gene-carrying plasmids mixed into some very fine gold dust. When it fires, the gold particles spray down onto the cells in the petri dish.

“You will hear a very subtle puff. That means the gun has been shot. Okay, so we’re gonna try this and see if it works… [hiss, pop, puff] …right.”

If all goes as planned, the tea from this plant will produce a more aromatic brew than chemically decaffeinated tea. Minocha likens its effects to that of dark chocolate. But he says producing a plant could take several years.

It’s still early in the process but it would be a big step for the beverage. Dan Bolton is managing editor of STiR Tea and Coffee, an industry magazine.

“Tea is the most widely drunk beverage on earth. There’s, quite literally, billions of people who drink tea daily.”

Given that market for tea, a superior decaf could be big.

And possibly lucrative. Roger Ford is a patent lawyer and teaches at the UNH School of Law.

“You could get a patent to the plant itself, or to the process for creating the plant.”

But Ford says this doesn’t necessarily translate into big money for UNH.

“If this particular process had been done before to coffee then that might make it very hard to get a patent for the process itself. It might be a little easier to get a patent on the tea plant once it had been altered.”

Either way, it’s not yet clear if this product will ever be economically feasible to produce on an industrial scale like chemically decaffeinated tea.

Dan Bolton predicts growers would likely produce only small batches at a premium price. Even so, he says, this holds promise.

“But I think it may be very well worth the effort. Tea yields and tea quality can be improved through research.”

And a greater understanding of the tea tree genome might lead to other advancements.

And there’s one other benefit that may stem from this research. One some of us may gladly pay a little extra for: super-caffeinated tea.