Tea Experts See Health, Flavor Benefits from Genome Research

Tea experts predict that the newly successful sequencing of the tea tree genome will result in new cultivars with unique flavors, tailored levels of caffeine, and perhaps improved health qualities.

Researchers from Kunming Institute of Botany in China, led by plant geneticist Lizhi Gao, sequenced the tea tree genome (cultivar Yunkang 10) from Yunnan Province, China. They reported their findings May 1 in the journal Molecular Plant.

The tea tree genome turned out to be much larger than initially expected, more than four times the size of the coffee plant genome, and assembling the genome took the team more than five years.

Biochemistry Professor Zeno Apostolides, of the University of Pretoria in Pretoria, South Africa, told World Tea News that, with this information, advances “will be made possible by classical breeding and selection, without any genetic modification of the tea plant.”

Apostolides foresees not only new flavors, but “low or high caffeine for different market segments, low fermenters for green tea, fast fermenters for black tea, high theanine for the umami taste or high catechins for health properties.”

Monique Simmonds, deputy director of science at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, UK, told BBC News that the findings “could have a significant impact on those involved in the breeding of tea but also those involved in breeding many plants used medicinally and in cosmetics, as the compounds that occur in tea are often associated with the biological properties of plants used medicinally or in cosmetics.”

Scientists now need to look at the genomes from a range of black tea varieties from India, Sri Lanka and Kenya and the green teas from different areas in China as well as Japan, Dr. Andrew O. Scott told World Tea News, “and then we can have some good solid comparisons to evaluate. Scott is chairman of the tea sub-committee for International Standards Organization (ISO) and was lead tea science for Nestle (2011-2016) and tea science and product development for Tetley Tea (1991-2010). He is currently lecturing on biochemistry and science career workshops at the University of Surrey.

Apostolides said he expects “a flurry of scientific publications” in the next 15 years, describing cultivars of tea with improved yield, increased tolerance to insect pests, fungal and bacterial diseases and drought.

“The next step will be finding DNA markers that are closely associated with desirable traits,” he said. The genomes of many annual crops have been published, and “these have already yielded commercial benefits. It is highly likely that the benefits that have been reported for other tree crops, annuals and farm animals will soon be achieved for tea, in two or three generations, each of about five years.”