March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Step aside Brexit, let me introduce you to your new worst nightmare: Fusarium xylarioides.

Step aside Brexit, let me introduce you to your new worst nightmare: Fusarium xylarioides.

No, I didn’t just sneeze. Fusarium xylarioides is the Latin name for a fungus currently infecting 60% of the coffee trees in East Africa. Didn’t realise coffee was a tree? High five! But more importantly, what do we know about the cause of this devastating plague?

“Climate change could be providing the perfect environment for Fusarium xylarioides to flourish,” said Lily Peck, a PhD student currently studying the disease at Imperial College London. And with thriving fungi to contend with, it is time that you know the truth. In the not-so-distant future, here in the UK we may have no more coffee. Sorry, did I make you spill your latte?

This is clearly very bad news. Brits drink 95 million cups of coffee every day. It’s a national obsession, deeply engrained in our culture. Not only is it sociable but it’s delicious, and in moderation it’s one of the few vices that has potential benefits for health and wellbeing.

However, let’s face it, the world doesn’t revolve around our 11am flat white. That’s not the main reason we should be worried. Hundreds of thousands of farmers in East Africa rely on the crop. They’re all going to lose their livelihoods. Let me correct myself, they are all already losing their livelihoods.

Before you completely despair, there is reason to be optimistic, as Lily Peck is setting out to tackle the disease. “Here at Imperial I’ll be looking at the DNA of the fungus to better understand why it is so aggressive. All coffee trees which catch it ultimately die so I’ll be trying to limit its spread and in turn reduce failures of coffee crops.” Lily is part of a team working at Imperial’s Grantham Institute, which brings together climate scientists so that they can find real-life solutions to the biggest threats to our survival – and our morning routine.

So, if you weren’t already feeling existential enough – (and if you weren’t, what’s wrong with you?) – then add Fusarium xylarioides (bless you) to your list of reasons not to be alive. In 20 years not only may the world be on fire because of climate change, but there might not even be any coffee beans to roast over the flames. In the meantime, let’s just think good thoughts for Lily and her team. Because as the saying goes, not all heroes wear capes

Madeleine Openshaw is currently studying for a MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.

Banner image: Mike Kenneally, Unsplash