This Beetle Ingests Ridiculous Amounts of Caffeine — How Does it Survive?

posted: 10/01/15
by: Danny Clemens
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You might think you're a coffee addict, but you've got nothing on the coffee borer beetle (Hypothenemus hampei).

Hardly longer than a millimeter, male borer beetles burrow into coffee berries, which make a great bachelor pad: the berry surrounds the caffeine-rich coffee bean, which the beetles use as their sole source of nourishment. The male will spend his entire life in the coffee berry, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a female looking to mate.

Considering its small size, the berry-bound beetle is routinely exposed to alarmingly high levels of caffeine -- the equivalent of a 150-pound person throwing back 500 shots of espresso. How does the hyped-up beetle avoid a potentially lethal caffeine overdose?

Hypothenemus hampei
L. Shyamal via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture and the University of California, Berkeley determined that the beetle houses small microbes in its gut that are capable of detoxifying and digesting massive amounts of caffeine.

That's great news for the beetle, but bad news for coffee farmers. According to the USDA, the beetle is one of the biggest threats to the coffee industry, causing more than $500 million of coffee crop losses in 2014.

Researchers hope that their newfound understand of the beetle's gut microbes could help farmers better control the pesky creature.

"Instead of using pesticides, perhaps we could target the coffee berry borer's gut microbiota. We could develop a way to disrupt the bacteria and make caffeine as toxic to this pest as it is to other insects," study lead author Javier Ceja-Navarro explains in a news release.

Ceja-Navarro's research is published in the July 14 issue of the journal Nature Communications.


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