If you don’t like tea, you should probably stop reading. Who doesn’t love a good brew though? The readers I just lost clearly. Tea is a wonderful beverage, affixed to the English culture (ironic really seeing as tea doesn’t even originate from here) with the power to amend many situations. With so many varieties of the stuff, it is no surprise that it is extremely popular. And there’s good news for tea fans, recent research has determined what gives tea its tasty flavour.
Tea derives from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The Camellia grouping contains over one hundred species but only Camellia Sinensis can create tea. Interestingly, this plant creates the six types of true tea; black, green, white, yellow, post fermented and oolong. If tea doesn’t contain one of the aforementioned it technically isn’t classified as a tea at all. Despite its economic and cultural importance, little is known about the genetics of tea and this is where a research team based in China come in. This extraordinary team have decoded the genetic building blocks behind the super-plant.
They hope this will provide an insight into the chemicals that give tea its distinctive flavour; as stated by Lizhi Gao, a plant geneticist on the team: “together with the construction of genetic maps and new sequencing technologies, we are working on an updated tea tree genome that will investigate some of the flavour”. In terms of flavour, the researchers discovered that tea contains high levels of flavoids and caffeine (great for those late night study sessions then). Understanding flavour becomes important when considering the future of tea. Demand for tea is ever present and if the opportunity arises for new varieties, flavours and qualities to emerge then that presents a whole new market to explore and a vast array of products for the consumer. As Guy Barter, a horticulturist at the Royal Horticulturist has said, “Once you understand the basis for the flavours and the processing quality of the tea, you can then have genetic markers that breeders can look for when trying to produce new varieties,”. Breeding new tea through selective breeding could offer even more variety for tea lovers everywhere. Make way PG tips, we have a new contender for you.
Breeding new tea through selective breeding could offer even more variety
The team revealed that decoding the genome took more than five years. The genome is three billion DNA base pairs long making it four times larger than the coffee plant; it is one of the largest sequenced plant species. However, it isn’t just the breeding of new teas that makes this research so exciting. Acknowledging the genetics behind the tea plant allows discoveries surrounding evolution to occur. The findings reveal how the plant itself evolved. Dr Monique Simmonds, the deputy director of science at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens who bears no attachment to the research in China has stated that “the biochemical pathways involved in the synthesis of the compounds important in the taste of tea are also present in some of the ancestors of tea and have been conserved for about 6.3 million years.” Simmonds also declared that ”Overall, the findings from this study 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.
The possibilities of tea are endless and this new research opens up even more opportunities for tea’s presence in our day to day lives. In the future, we might not just drink tea, we might use it for health or for beauty. It will be interesting to see how tea’s cultural presence could evolve into a heftier economic enterprise.