Castillo proves resistant to coffee berry disease

The recent crop renovation efforts of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) in response to the outbreak of coffee leaf rust in Central and South America is being shown to have more long-term benefits than initially thought. Work by Cenicafé, which is the research arm of the FNC, has confirmed that the Castillo variety used to upgrade the nation’s crops over recent years is resilient in the face of more threats than just the coffee leaf rust they were brought in to combat. The Castillo variety is the result of a breeding program that has been run by Cenicafé for more than 50 years. Over the course of its existence, this program has produced incremental improvements in both yield and disease resistance through the introduction of new coffee varieties. In 1968, Cenicafé introduced the Catimor varietal to the world, a high-yielding, highly resistant variety first developed in Portugal and now widely grown in Central America. Since then the program has also been responsible for the development of the Colombia and Tabi cultivars. In 2005 Cenicafé released Castillo, which is credited with higher productivity and improved disease resistance, all while offering a higher cup quality. While Castillo was brought in primarily as a response to the rust outbreak, it is now being proved to have further value in terms of its disease-resistant qualities. In a recent study, Cenicafé has confirmed the resistance of the Castillo variety to the less well-known Coffee Berry Disease (CBD). So far confined to Africa, this disease, which is caused by the fungal pathogen Colletotrichum kahawae, has not yet reached the American continent. However, the FNC has learned from past experience that this is no reason to be complacent. Coffee Berry Disease is particularly aggressive. When it hits, it can affect up to 80 per cent of production of a coffee plantation. In Africa, the disease is dispersed throughout the continent. “As far as we know, it is widely distributed in Africa and the most pathogenic races are present in Eastern and Central Africa. It has been reported in Kenya, Angola, DR Congo, Cameroon, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Malawi and Zimbabwe,” Carlos E. Maldonado, author of the study and researcher at Cenicafé, tells Global Coffee Report. While the strengths of Castillo in the face of some particular threats are already well known, the genetic screening of its resilience in the face of CBD is new, according to Maldonado. The insights from this latest research have in part been made possible by the advances made through the FNC’s Coffee Genome Project. The complete sequencing of coffee’s 22 chromosomes was completed in 2014. The project was a joint initiative between Cenicafé with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Regional Fund for Agricultural Technology (FONTAGRO). This highly detailed data was generated using the latest sequencing technology in an effort to strengthen the competitiveness and sustainability of the production of high quality coffee in the global market. The genetic information of the Coffea arabica and Coffea eugenioides species contains the location and characterisation of more than 30,000 genes responsible for all aspects of the plant, and is valuable information for coffee breeders. “The molecular biology developments as part of the Coffee Genome Project have been key for identifying resistance of the Castillo variety to CBD,” Maldonado tells GCR. The initial stated purpose of the Coffee Genome Project was to accelerate the process of selecting plant varieties that tackle both local climatic changes and the specific needs of coffee growers. With the modern process of developing new varieties through breeding taking in excess of 12 years, the genomic information gleaned through the Coffee Genome Project can speed up this process. “[The Coffee Genome Project] lasted about 10 years and provided valuable information for different disciplines such as plant physiology, phytopathology, entomology, and plant breeding. The vast amount of findings and data has been a valuable input for many disciplines,” Maldonado says. Among these applications for the information from the project was the research into CBD. “Recently it helped us understand and confirm the presence in several coffee varieties, such as Castillo and Colombia, of molecular markers associated with resistance to diseases such as coffee leaf rust and CBD,” Maldonado says. The news was not so positive for some other varietals, however. “We have confirmed that the Caturra coffee variety is susceptible to the disease because it lacks the genes associated with CBD resistance, inherited from the Timor Hybrid through plant breeding,” he says. “We are determining experimentally the presence of molecular markers associated with CBD in the Typica and Borbón coffee varieties, which shouldn’t carry the disease resistance genes from Timor Hybrid.” While Castillo’s resistance to CBD is a boon for those coffee farms that have undergone renovation, the FNC is still not taking any chances with the remaining portion of Colombia’s coffee producers who are still using other varieties that are not resistant to CBD. The organisation has a number of processes in place to prevent the spread of the disease to the American ontinent in the first place. Domestic and international authorities, such as the Colombian Agriculture and Livestock Institute, which is responsible for plant health in the country, have adopted multiple measures and protocols to contain the spread of diseases. However, the rising number of passengers and cargo make it increasingly difficult to do so. “Based on the experiences of African countries affected by CBD, we are developing control measures in case the disease appears,” Maldonado says. “Additionally, we have continuous monitoring programs in the field: if a strange factor appears, Cenicafé receives enquiries and addresses the issue.” So while this latest research is good news for those farmers cultivating Castillo, there is still no room for complacency, Maldonadosays. “[CBD] is a top-level threat, given that it attacks fruits and can affect up to 80 per cent of coffee production if not controlled,” he says. “It could pose an even greater threat than coffee leaf rust, which has affected large coffee areas in Central American countries and has led to significant economic losses.” GCR

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