On October 7, 2020, the Coffee Association of Canada (CAC) held its Virtual Coffee Conference, and Laurentian University’s very own Dr. Thomas Merritt was invited to speak on the varying biological effects of coffee – the world’s favourite beverage. Dr. Merritt is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
At the conference, Dr. Merritt was introduced by John Middlemass, the head of coffee for Tim Horton’s, before giving his talk titled “Biology of the Bean: We all taste and react to coffee just a little differently,” based on his article from earlier this year written for The Conversation. Titled “The biology of coffee, one of the world’s most popular drinks,” it was translated into 5 languages, read over 700,000 times and shared over 170,000 times on Facebook. As an American, Dr. Merritt’s transition into Canada involved a lot of Tim Horton’s coffee on the long drives between New York and Sudbury: “I loved the connection of almost 15 years later having John introduce my talk.”
As a former Canada Research Chair in Genomics and Bioinformatics and genetics researcher, Dr. Merritt dives into the science behind drinking coffee, such as the different biological effects and even the benefits. Coffee has two main biologically active ingredients: caffeine and antioxidants. Caffeine is a stimulant and the part of coffee that wakes you up. Some people respond to caffeine differently depending on genetic differences or the inability to process caffeine. Antioxidants are at the forefront of some health research due to their ability to neutralize naturally occurring waste in our bodies, preventing oxidized molecules from causing damage in our bodies. There is even evidence that higher coffee consumption is associated with lower rates of some cancers and Parkinson’s disease. However, it is not that simple, in fact, it is quite complex. Individual variation, gene regulation, and a suite of environmental factors all play a role in the effects coffee has on us and the diseases we are susceptible to.
Dr. Merritt’s research group studies gene regulation and metabolism. Using fruit flies and other model organisms, their research group uses functional genomics and bioinformatics to explore genetic diversity and biological variation. Using opportunities, such as the article and the conference, he engages with an audience that might not be as interested in science and research by creating a connection with something people love – in this case, coffee.