Smart breeding turns 10 years into 2! Using DNA information, we can create unique new tea cultivars full of individuality. [Shizuoka University / Takahashi Ikka]

Yabukita, Tsuyuhikari, Saemidori, Seimei. These are the names of tea cultivars. With the recent boom in single-origin teas, many of you may have heard of some of them. Other functional cultivars, such as Benifuki, which works against hay fever, and Sun Rouge, which is rich in anthocyanin, have also emerged, and there are high expectations for future tea cultivars.

Under such circumstances, the technology for utilizing DNA information, which is indispensable for breeding plants and animals, is being applied to the world of tea.

This is due to the IT revolution in the 1990s and the completion of the whole human genome analysis in 2001, which has led to increased attention and investment in DNA analysis technology, and to the emergence of next-generation DNA sequencers (NGS) in mid-2007, which are 100 times faster than conventional sequencers. The advent of next-generation sequencers has dramatically reduced the time and cost of genome analysis. Now technologies and services utilizing DNA information are being created one after another.

In 2020, the world’s first technology to predict functional ingredients in tea plants, such as catechins and caffeine, was developed. It is based on genetic information obtained from DNA analysis. This technology has dramatically accelerated the process of tea breeding, which used to take more than ten years and has opened the door to the possibility of customized tea breeding.

We interviewed Takahashi Ikka – the Associate Professor of Shizuoka University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Department of Applied Life Sciences, who developed this technology, about the possibilities of tea and DNA.

Takahashi Ikka

Ikka-san is from Fukui Prefecture and was born in November 1980. In 2008, he received the Doctor of Agriculture degree from the United Graduate School of Agriculture, Gifu University. In 2009, Ikka-san became a special researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural and Biological Resources, then in 2010 he got the position of an assistant professor in the Faculty of Agriculture, Shizuoka University, and then in 2017 he became an associate professor of the agricultural field at the Faculty of Agriculture, Shizuoka University. In November 2022, Ikka-san was appointed the CEO of Aoi Gin Craft Technology, a venture company of Shizuka University, and in January 2024, he became CBO (Chief Bioeconomy Officer) of S-Bridges Co., Ltd. He specializes in plant nutrition and plant molecular genetics and is engaged in research to elucidate the physiological functions of various plants, including tea and wasabi.

Smart breeding – a long-awaited technology to produce delicious tea in a short period of time

Q: Could you tell us about the “smart breeding using DNA information” that you have been working on?

Ikka: In the case of tea, there is the problem that breeding (creating new plants that benefit humans through crossbreeding) takes time.

In the case of rice, for example, once crossbreeding is done, it takes about 40 days to bear fruit. If you plant it again, you can produce one generation in about two to three months. The size of the individual plant is not that large, so they do not require much space. Therefore, breeding can be done quickly.

Tea, on the other hand, takes one year to cross-pollinate and bear fruit. It takes about five years to plant the seed, raise the next generation, produce tea, and taste it. It takes a long time before we can say, “This is a success” or “This is not good at all”. Because it is a tree, it also requires space for cultivation. That is why it is very difficult.

photo by Global Japanese Tea Association

 The difference between regular and smart breading

However, by utilizing DNA information, the individuality and future of the tea can be predicted. Once predictions are made, only the very best specimens can be selected and planted in tea fields, shortening the time required to breed a cultivar and reducing the amount of land needed for cultivation. This is our technology.

As this research progresses, it will be possible to meet the needs of tea producers. By answering requests from various perspectives, such as fragrance, taste, pest resistance, fertilizer absorption, tree size, and ease of photosynthesis, it will be possible to breed custom-made cultivars. We may get requests such as, “Can it grow bigger with less fertilizer?”, or “Can it require less pesticides?”.

Professor Ikka presenting his research at the International Conference on Green Science and Technology

Q: Does working with DNA also connect to the topic of genetic modification?

Yes, it does. Breeding through technologies such as genetic modification and genome editing will become commonplace in the tea industry within the next 10 years.

Still, it is unlikely that Japanese people would be willing to drink genetically modified tea. In the end, we believe that crossbreeding will remain the mainstream approach.

However, the process of breeding will change. Instead of frantically breeding, we will be able to simulate what kind of specimens will be produced by crossing this species with that species, which should increase the efficiency of breeding.

Q: How did you come to do this research?

Ikka: Originally, my research was focused on plant nutrition and plant molecular genetics. After receiving my degree from Gifu University in 2008, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences (NIBS) in Tsukuba, Japan, for one year.

At the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences (NIBS), I mainly worked on paddy rice. In 2010, I started to work in the same lab as Professor Akio Morita, who was at the forefront of tea research, which led me to step into tea research.

At the time, I had no knowledge of tea, but it was a good fit with the research I had been doing, and I was able to easily enter the new field.

While working on the research to solve issues such as how to reduce the environmental impact of tea cultivation and how to create more unique new cultivars, the idea of smart breeding that utilizes DNA information was born. The presence of Dr. Hiroto Yamashita, with whom I am currently working, is also very important. He is really talented.

Q: What kind of difficulties did you face while conducting your research?

Ikka: When breeding using DNA, it is of course necessary to analyze the DNA information. However, at that time, the DNA information of tea was not yet fully sequenced, and databases and resources were not available, making genomic scientific experiments very difficult. Since the whole genome size of the tea plant is comparable to that of the human genome, the analysis would cost at least 100 million yen, or even as much as 1 billion yen, making it difficult to make progress.

The situation changed drastically when new technology was developed, and the cost of DNA sequencing dropped dramatically. Furthermore, we discovered that the Tea Research Institute of Shizuoka Prefecture had excellent resources, and our research progressed rapidly. Since then, thanks to the generous support from Shizuoka Prefecture, our research has continued to progress in the right direction.

Q: Are there any benchmarks or competitors?

Ikka: I rarely look to anyone in particular as a reference or want to be that person. I think that everyone is interesting in his or her own way. Besides, if you aim to be someone else, you might end up being second best to that person.

It is fine for each person to do what they believe is interesting, and I feel like being aware of rivals can create pressure or jealousy, so I try not to think about it too much.

Q: What does Japanese tea mean to you?

Ikka: It is difficult. What do other people say? …I see, some people say, that it is family.

In my case, it is not family at all (laughs). I guess it is a friend. I have come across the subject of research called tea, and I have honestly accepted my fate.

However, when it comes to research, there are some things that can only be achieved because there are few competitors. So I think  I am going to take it seriously and try out different things.

Q: What are some of the difficulties in working with Japanese tea?

Ikka: Tea does not listen to our wishes and instructions at all. It does not grow the way I want it and I do not know why. It is just like my 2-year-old, 5-month-old sons in that I cannot control them (laughs).

We want to create custom-made tea that can only be found here and can be sold with confidence

Q: Please tell us about the appeal of the smart breeding business and the future you hope to achieve through it.

Ikka: The appeal of this business is that we can create unique and unconventional teas.

Therefore, in the future, I would like to breed teas that are tailor-made that can fulfill wishes of tea producers, such as “It would be great to make tea with this kind of flavor and aroma”. I think it would be interesting to create teas that can only be found here.

If we can communicate the thoughts and stories of each producer through their tea, while also incorporating historical and cultural backgrounds, Japanese tea can be raised to a higher level. In addition, just as coffee tastes different depending on the region where it is produced, Japanese tea can be characterized by saying, “Tea from XX tastes like this”.

Wine can be a helpful example. There are hit and miss years for wine, and producers can appreciate “this year’s results”. I think the same thing can be done with tea.

 Sampling of genetic material

Q: What role would you like to take on in such a future?

Ikka: I am not aiming to be on the front page. I am just trying to help growers realize their dreams of producing tea using the technology of smart breeding. In other words, my role is just to sprinkle some spice on tea.

In future, like any other commodity, tea will not sell well if it is lacking character. As a result, I believe that some tea farms will go abandoned.

Therefore, producers need to clearly envision the kind of tea they want to produce, realize it through smart breeding, and firmly promote it by saying, “This is the kind of tea we make”. The tea that is well presented sells well and gives a good income.

If this cycle works properly, there will be motivation to take on the next challenge. I think it would be great if we could help this cycle, prospering Japanese tea growers and making the Japanese tea industry more interesting.

Let’s not leave things to the young people or create an uneven society. All generations should come together to invigorate the tea industry

Q: Is there anything you would like to try in the future?

Ikka: There is also Zairai – the native species, that have existed for a long time. I believe that it is the native species that have the future.

Native species hiding in the mountains have potential, but they are often overlooked. If we use our technology to examine their genomes, we can simulate how they taste and how they grow, and say, “This is an interesting specimen”, or “This genome is valuable because it does not exist in any other specimen”. Isn’t that exciting?

I am still researching native species in Japan. For example, the genomes of native species in Niigata and Akita are slightly different from those in other regions. That probably means that only cold tolerant specimens have survived. Kochi’s mountain tea is also very unique. This kind of information could also be used for breeding.

 A student is happy to get many samples of genetic material.

Q: What do you think the future of the tea industry will look like?

Ikka: I think we will definitely take a leap forward compared to what we have seen in the past.

However, I believe that people of all generations need to work together, without saying such irresponsible silly things like “we need the help of young people”.

Genetic material collection at Fushunen. Prompted by the chief priest, Ikka-san reminisced about the time when Zen master Eisai, known as the “founder of Japanese tea” was said to have sat on a zazen stone.

Various people should think about the future of Japanese tea in their own way, and work together without excluding anyone, regardless of past involvement or background.

We should not close off tea. And we should never sell it cheaply. Making tea with a happy vision in mind is the attitude needed to develop the tea industry further.