To give context, the setting I'm working on is one where advanced genetic engineering and biotechnology are plentiful.

The premise is this, the coffee industry is dominated in the tropics by a cartel that brooks no competition. So as a result one of the characters decides to go against this by taking a coffee plant and modifying it to be able to grow in temperate climes without the need of a hothouse or anything besides the local soil.

What changes would a coffee plant need to grow and flourish outside the tropics and still be consumable to humans?

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    $\begingroup$ Granted, you have a worldbuilding context for a real-world question, but to be honest, anyone who could give you meaningful details to answer this question would be running to the patent office rather than posting them here. Do you really need those details? See Why asking for the details isn't always a good idea and Advice concerning questions asking HOW to implement a technological procedure or device. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 18, 2022 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ Depending on the level of detail you need and your level of understanding of the science involved the answer could be as simple as "You modify the plant to grow and flourish outside the tropics" to a doctoral thesis and successful acquisition of your startup by Monsanto. Can you be more specific with the level of detail you're looking for in an answer. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jul 18, 2022 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not looking for something super specific. Just details I can add to the description that 'right' generally speaking. The step by step of how its done isn't fully relevant to the story. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2022 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ Engineer evergreens to make coffee beans instead of pine cones. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jul 19, 2022 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ It's possible to engineer the plant to contain natural antifreeze proteins, but the taste and quality of the bean could be affected negatively. If so, your character might be able to work out a way to further engineer the plant to nullify the negative effects. $\endgroup$
    – V. Roland
    Jul 19, 2022 at 12:56

7 Answers 7


Fish Flavoured Coffee

Scientists have added the antifreeze genes from a deep sea flounder to tomatoes to produce a frost tolerant variety

enter image description here

See Expression of antifreeze proteins in transgenic plants

They also have added to strawberries and other plants.



frost killed coffee

Your protagonist receives a package with a photo and some coffee fruit. The photo is what looks to be the sole survivor of the Brazillian frost that wiped out all the coffee plants. Except this one. In his greenhouse, and then his yard, your protagonist grows the cold hardy coffee plants.

If your story is about the geopolitics of coffee economics, that will be enough. If your fiction is about genetic engineering, you can have your scientific-minded protagonist realize that there are some unusual things about this unnaturally hardy coffee plant. It may have come to exist as an unrealized and unintended byproduct of other activities going on near its origin.

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    $\begingroup$ What is this photo from? $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Jul 19, 2022 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 - the original is from stir-tea-coffee.com/downloads/3578/download/… I used MS Paint to add a green coffee plant from a different source to the frost-killed dead ones. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 19, 2022 at 21:11

Frost tolerance and a longer vegetative growth period.

The plant cannot survive freezing temperatures because it lacks the natural “antifreeze” chemistry to protect its cell walls. So the plant’s genetics need to change, which will drastically and unpredictably change the flavor of the beans.

The plant normally goes through a 12-15 month vegetative stage during which it has a very high Nitrogen intake, before entering its 4-5 year fruiting cycle. A poor diet in the vegetative stage renders the bean quality and size deficient for the rest of its life. So in cooler climates it will need more time to develop its vegetative maturity. This will also have unpredictable effects on bean taste, size, and quality.

So we may be able to force the plant to grow in a different climate, the question about the economic value of their new product can’t be answered empirically.

I refer to research found here in my response.


There's no need to modify coffee bushes to grow outside the tropics.

Coffee has been raised successfully (from a botanical point of view; economic success was compromised, as I understand it, by industry prejudice) in the Cascade range of Washington state, an area that experiences hard freezes, long dull winters, and heavy snowfall (but is wet enough, which I understand to be the real limitation and the reason mountainous regions are preferred in Central and South America).

Further, many of the current commercially successful coffee growing regions are mountainous enough to experience winter conditions from time to time, even in the tropics and subtropics. Colombia and Ecuador, for instance, have glacier-robed peaks (though coffee isn't grown quite that far up, it is grown high enough to experience sporadic freezing nights).,

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have a source for the Cascades coffee? My Google-Fu is failing me and I'd like to read more about it. $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    Jul 19, 2022 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ It's grown in Australia, too. Queensland is tropical but NSW isn't (I'd say temperate is closer than 'sub-tropical', but the very north of the state probably qualifies). $\endgroup$
    – mcalex
    Jul 20, 2022 at 1:05
  • $\begingroup$ @eugene Not handy, other than that I first heard about it in the mid-1980s when I lived in Seattle. I've never seen it for sale, I don't think the farm got the investment it needed, but what I recall is it wasn't due to crop failures or such, just the coffee world wasn't ready for a new growing region. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jul 20, 2022 at 11:00

Do you really want to get rid of greenhouses?

Coffee plants need low lighting and cool, but not too cold temperature. That is a plant that would grow well in a skyscraper greenhouse. Now they are expensive, but prices could go down in the future. The real trouble with modified plants is that if it is really good then you have to protect it from the competition that would try and steal some samples that could be grown in countries that do not recognise your patent. If the value of your plantation is in the advanced greenhouse that would be more difficult to copy and compete.


It's probably fairly straightforward to use GM splice in a "natural antifreeze" gene to give the plant some frost-tolerance. I suspect the reason it hasn't already been done in the real world, is that "GM" is seen by many consumers as something akin to "radioactive": something to be avoided at all costs!

The other way would be the plant-breeder's approach. Crosses between plant species are far more frequent (and far more frequently fertile) than in animals. So, find somewhat related species that are already frost-tolerant and cross away. The hard bit here (if you can create a frost-resistant cross at all) would be that it has to taste at least as good as an Arabica.

Genetic analysis might prove that the gene for frost-resistance is already in coffee plants, but silent. In which case selective breeding with or without shaking things up would also work. "Shaking things up" means increasing the mutation rate using hard radiation or nasty mutagenic chemicals. Not very many people know that a hard radiation induced mutation is how we got pink and red grapefruits!

For your plot, though, you might get a thriller by allowing the plant-breeder to strike the jackpot. A frost-resistant cross that tastes simply superb! Then some nasty people decide that illegality is the best way to deal with the new competition....


Really the solution is to grow it under glass, as is done with tomatoes and many other fruits, to extend the growing season near where they're wanted. Citrus fruits have been grown this way in frosty countries for centuries. Given the land area and energy inputs required, the result would be an expensive luxury.

But if a hothouse is ruled out, walled gardens can be kept frost-free by using the heat from decomposition in composting. Apart from avoiding frost, coffee plants don't need particularly warm climates, which is why they do better at altitude.

As new species in the Coffea genus are still being discovered, it's possible that one will be found that can tolerate a little frost, either as your productive crop or a parent in cross-breeding

Pollination is also necessary, but honeybees can do that.

  • $\begingroup$ Totally, in terms of economics timescale, that would be too long to develop a new strain of coffee. It's research work, with probably several genes to modify if using genetic engineering (and many experiments to identify which genes), or several years of artificial selection/hybridization... Much faster to build greenhouses. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2022 at 15:20

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