Feb 22, 2019

Axios Future

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Any stories we should be chasing? Hit reply to this email or message me at steve@axios.com. Kaveh Waddell is at kaveh@axios.com and Erica Pandey at erica@axios.com.

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1 big thing: Saving coffee

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientists have sequenced the human genome, and those of thousands of microbes, plants and other animals, cracking open species that were a mystery to generations.

  • But the quotidian coffee plant — that everyday elixir of billions, and the livelihood of millions more — remains a stubborn beast.

Kaveh writes: This is no small matter. Coffee is under increasingly urgent risk from disease and climate change, which have devastated huge batches of crops and today threaten many of the 125 million people, mostly in developing nations, whose livelihoods depend on the crop.

  • The affordable morning cup of coffee is at risk, too.
  • But biologists, working on mapping and redesigning the plant, think that they are getting closer to saving coffee.

What's going on: Science's understanding of the coffee plant is surprisingly rudimentary, despite the enormous volume of the bean traded globally, its massive popularity among consumers, and its significance to many developing countries.

  • But, in an effort to create new plants, Juan Medrano, a professor at UC Davis, leads a lab that is sequencing the genome of a popular strain of coffee plant.
  • In 2012, a disease called coffee rust began destroying huge amounts of crops in Central and South America — coffee production in El Salvador, the most affected country, alone dropped by 70% between the 2010-2011 and 2013-2014 seasons.
  • That's when Medrano went looking for information about the coffee genome. But he found nothing. "It was a real surprise to me that so many other species have been sequenced and coffee was kind of like an orphan," he tells Axios.
  • So he and a team at UC Davis set about doing it themselves, focusing on a variety of the popular arabica plant. They published initial findings in 2017 and are continuing to map out the genome, convinced it could be the key to saving coffee.

The goal is a more robust plant: Medrano and other biologists are looking for genes associated with resistance to deadly diseases like coffee rust, or with resilience against increasingly common extreme temperatures and drought. If they can connect genes with the physical characteristics they control, they could create plants that can stand up to steadily worsening threats.

Among the challenges:

  • Mapping the genome is a long and expensive process, made difficult by the complexity of the most popular type of coffee plant, a hybrid of two other species. "It's like doing a puzzle — where you have four puzzles with slight differences mixed together," says Meghan Hochstrasser of the Innovative Genomics Institute, a partnership between UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.
  • And researchers don't always have the raw materials they require: "There are currently few gene candidates for editing that could result in agronomically relevant traits, like disease and pest resistance, climate adaptation, improved yields or new qualities," says Alvaro Gaitan, director of Cenicafé, Colombia's national coffee research center.

The upside is that the labs have several tools to work with.

  • Medrano's preferred approach is to breed plants, selecting for traits that make them hardy. Humans have been modifying plants this way since they were first domesticated some 10,000 years ago.
  • Another, distinctly 21st century alternative is to deploy CRISPR, a gene editing tool which allows scientists to toggle single genes on and off in a plant or animal's DNA.
2. The worries of war

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty

In a new paper, a senior European Union economist suggests anew that the political upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic could erupt into World War III, a danger that numerous scholars and politicians have flagged for a couple of years.

In his paper, however, Gerhard Hanappi, a professor at the Institute for Mathematical Models in Economics at the Vienna University of Technology, describes how such a war could unfold:

  • Between the U.S., Russia and China
  • In the form of multiple, small civil wars within countries
  • Between poorer and richer nations of the world

I emailed a few geopolitical specialists about Hanappi's forecast. Most were scornful — Brookings' Robert Kagan called him "loopy" and Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations said, "I can't see why you would give this that much attention." But all went on to offer their own view of the prospect of war.

Here are excerpts:

Ian Bremmer, president, Eurasia Group

"He’s not really forecasting WWIII. He’s saying global conflict is far more likely given the rise of nationalism/authoritarianism and its disintegrating impact on global capitalism. With that caveat, I agree with him. We’re on a path to far more global violence and deprivation, despite all the breakthroughs to alleviate poverty and advance well being, because the geopolitical order is falling apart. And the tail risks of all three of his global conflict scenarios are increasing accordingly."

Mathew Burrows, Atlantic Council

"I certainly do worry that we could be headed for war if we don’t watch out. I don’t believe it is inevitable. But as World War I showed, you can stumble into war — a war which nobody wants. We are still a ways away — somewhere in the 1890s by my estimation. But there is too much lighthearted warmongering. And we seem to believe that China has no business being a global power, rather than accepting that the world won’t be just the U.S.’s oyster forever."

Robert Kagan, Brookings

"To say that capitalism is 'disintegrating' because of the rise of nationalism/authoritarianism is historically dubious. Did capitalism disintegrate when nationalism/authoritarianism were dominant forces between 1800 and 1945? No. It eventually rose to take over the world. Geopolitics is critical to the equation. To say that 'capitalism is disintegrating' is different from saying we are returning to geopolitical competition over spheres of influence and to the historic divide between democracies and authoritarians. And the two together suggest increasing likelihood of conflict, especially if Americans are not interested in deterrence any more."

Richard Haass, Council on Foreign Relations

"The internal challenges capitalist/developed/democratic countries are facing are real and could threaten social cohesion and our willingness and ability to tackle international challenges. (The) situation [is] worse than it was, which is what you’d expect a guy who wrote a book about disarray to say."

"The odds for something happening somewhere have gone up, but [it's] impossible to predict exactly what and when and impossible to predict how it might unfold."

3. What you may have missed

Photo: F.J. Mortimer/Getty

Where did the week go? Catch up on the top stories from Future.

  1. Keeping AI from the bad guys: A messy debate
  2. Filthy rich, owing no taxes: Fortune 500 giants are due a refund
  3. Where the jobs aren't: Millions can't physically get to jobs
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Hacking unhackable blockchains (Mike Orcutt — MIT Tech Review)

Meet the minotaurs (Felix Salmon — Axios)

Why the fax machine is hot in Israel (Felicia Schwartz — WSJ)

A fashion business behind bars (Elizabeth Paton, Andrea Zarate — NYT)

A whale's afterlife (Jeffrey Marlow — New Yorker)

5. 1 💰 thing: Getting a breakup handler

A lithograph of heartbreak in 1944. Photo: GraphicaArtis/Getty

You can get a planner for your wedding, your baby shower and even your funeral. Now there's yet another life event that you can contract out to a company: your breakup.

Erica writes: A new company called Onward will, for a $99 fee, move you out of your shared house or apartment, so you don't have to face your ex.

  • Onward, which has dubbed itself a "post-breakup concierge," will handle all the logistics of renting a van, packing up your stuff and getting it out. It’ll even connect you with a counselor to work through the split.
  • The company‘s founders they were motivated by observing couples who stay in bad relationships just because moving seems so daunting.

My thought bubble: What’s the point if Onward doesn’t help you with the hardest part? (The breaking up)

Lindsay Meck, one of the founders told me: “People have asked us!”