Independent Origins of Yeast Associated with Coffee and Cacao Fermentation

Curr Biol. 2016 Apr 4;26(7):965-71. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.02.012. Epub 2016 Mar 24.


Modern transportation networks have facilitated the migration and mingling of previously isolated populations of plants, animals, and insects. Human activities can also influence the global distribution of microorganisms. The best-understood example is yeasts associated with winemaking. Humans began making wine in the Middle East over 9,000 years ago [1, 2]. Selecting favorable fermentation products created specialized strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae [3, 4] that were transported along with grapevines. Today, S. cerevisiae strains residing in vineyards around the world are genetically similar, and their population structure suggests a common origin that followed the path of human migration [3-7]. Like wine, coffee and cacao depend on microbial fermentation [8, 9] and have been globally dispersed by humans. Theobroma cacao originated in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of Colombia and Venezuela [10], was cultivated in Central America by Mesoamerican peoples, and was introduced to Europeans by Hernán Cortés in 1530 [11]. Coffea, native to Ethiopia, was disseminated by Arab traders throughout the Middle East and North Africa in the 6(th) century and was introduced to European consumers in the 17(th) century [12]. Here, we tested whether the yeasts associated with coffee and cacao are genetically similar, crop-specific populations or genetically diverse, geography-specific populations. Our results uncovered populations that, while defined by niche and geography, also bear signatures of admixture between major populations in events independent of the transport of the plants. Thus, human-associated fermentation and migration may have affected the distribution of yeast involved in the production of coffee and chocolate.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cacao / microbiology*
  • Coffee / microbiology*
  • Fermentation
  • Geography
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / classification*
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / genetics
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / isolation & purification*
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / metabolism
  • Transportation


  • Coffee