Relish that coffee now. It might be extinct in 20 years.

Most people think there are two major kinds of coffee, arabica and robusta. (No doubt some people think the two kinds of coffee are regular and decaf, but I digress.) And it's true that almost all the coffee that you can find in the market, or at your local coffee shop, is made from one of these beans or from a blend of both.

Actually, there are 124 species of coffee. Unfortunately, as we learned in a new paper published last week in the journal Science60% of them are currently in danger of going extinct. The primary threats are habitat loss (caused by humans) and climate changes (also caused by humans).

Even though the term "endangered species" is more often used to refer to animals, we humans have already wiped out countless plant species, primarily through deforestation, and many more are going extinct each year. We will never know how many species have already been lost as we've chopped down rich rainforests to create grazing lands for cattle or monoculture plantations, but we do know that it's still going on.

Of the two major beans that we use for coffee, the better-tasting bean, arabica, is already endangered, according to the new study. Robusta coffees aren't bad, but as the new paper explains:
"Although robusta has some negative sensory qualities (e.g., tasting notes of wood and tobacco), it is favored in some instances for its taste, high caffeine content, and ability to add body to espresso and espresso-based coffees; it is now the species of choice for instant coffee."
If we don't do something to protect wild coffee species, we might soon be drinking nothing but robusta coffee.

If that seems implausible, recall that this already happened to the banana. In the mid-1900s, the entire worldwide production of bananas was basically wiped out by Panama disease, caused by a fungus. Before then, a tasty variety called Gros Michel was the dominant species, but thanks to the fungus:
"By 1960, the Gros Michel was essentially extinct and the banana industry nearly bankrupt. It was saved at the last minute by the Cavendish, a Chinese variety that had been considered something close to junk." (Source: NYTimes)
Now, the robusta bean is far better than "junk," but I for one prefer my arabica coffee.

The main threats to arabica (and robusta) are outbreaks of mold and fungal infections, not unlike the disease that wiped out bananas. Those 122 wild species–of which 60% are now endangered–are often resistant, allowing plant scientists to inter-breed the wild and domesticated varieties to create new strains that resist disease and taste just as good as the original. This wild "reservoir" of coffee is critical to saving coffee as we know and love it today.

You're probably accustomed to seeing coffee labelled by the region it's grown in, rather than the type of bean. This is similar to how we label wines as being from France, California, Australia, etc. Coffee is grown in many temperate regions, including Central and South America, Indonesia, central Africa, and Hawaii. Just as with wine, the climate makes a difference, but the bean itself is an even bigger factor. Consider the difference between cabernet, pinot noir, or sauvignon grapes for wine–in the same way, arabica bean coffees tastes quite different from robusta coffee.

If we don't pay attention to the threat to coffee, we might all be drinking a less-tasty brew in the years to come.

(Aside: I've been working for several years on a project to sequence Coffea arabica, the tetraploid genome of arabica coffee, and our results will likely be published soon. We're hoping that the genome will assist coffee scientists who are trying to breed new, disease-resistant varieties.)

The flu vaccine is working well this year. It's not too late to get it.

Current flu trends for 2018-19. Brown shows H1N1 strains,
red shows H3N2, and yellow indicates the strain was not
The flu is widespread and increasing right now, according to the CDC.  At least 42 states were reporting high levels of flu activity as of the end of December 2018, and the rates are still climbing. In other words, we're in the midst of flu season.

Other than that, though, the news is relatively good. Here's why.

First, the dominant strain of flu this year is H1N1, which is the "swine flu" that first appeared as a pandemic in 2009. But pandemics don't have to come with high mortality rates, and as it turned out–luckily for humankind–the 2009 flu was milder than the previous dominant strain, H3N2, which first appeared way back in 1968.

This season, nearly 90% of the flu cases tested by the CDC are turning out to be H1N1, the milder variety. Although 10% of people are still getting the much-nastier H3N2 flu, it's good news compared to last year, when H3N2 dominated.

Back to the bad news (although this is old news): the 2009 swine flu (H1N1) didn't completely displace the older flu strain. Instead, we now have both types of influenza circulating, along with two strains of the even milder influenza B virus. Since 2009, the flu vaccine has to combat all 4 of these flu viruses, which is why you might see the term "quadrivalent" associated with the vaccine. That just means it targets all 4 different strains.

Back to the good news again: the vaccine this year contains just the right strains! This doesn't always happen; actually it happens much less frequently than anyone would like. But now that the flu season is under way, the CDC can test the circulating flu viruses and compare them to the strains that are targeted by this year's vaccine. This year, both the H1N1 and the H3N2 viruses match the vaccine strains really well, which means that if you got the shot, you are likely to be very well protected.

(Keep in mind that even in a good year, the vaccine isn't 100% effective, and you can still get the flu. But you are much less likely to get it than anyone who is unvaccinated.)

While I've got your attention, let me answer one of the top 10 health questions of the year: "how long is the flu contagious?" According to the CDC,

  • the flu is most contagious in the first 3-4 days after becoming sick.

It continues to be contagious for up to a week, so if you have the flu, stay home! And make sure those around you avoid physical contact, as much as possible, and wash their hands frequently.

And while I'm at it, let's debunk a common myth:

  • No, you can't get the flu from the vaccine.

So if you've put off getting the flu vaccine, it's not too late! The season is in full swing, but if you get the vaccine today, you'll likely have excellent protection for the rest of the season. Go get it.