Llamas—the shaggy, gangle creatures of the Andes—can keep the coyotes away better than any lazy old sheep dog. Llamas come in a variety of colors and textures and are reputedly way friendlier than their cousins: the spit-happy, cantankerous camels. Mittens can be made from llama wool. Songs about llamas are catchy. Llamas are multi-purpose. There are some llamas in a pasture near the bike/walking path that leads west from Oregon State University. While waving my arms at them and yelling, “Hey stupid llama! Come here, stupid llama—I wanna pet you!” I often wonder if their luxuriant eyelashes and blasé looks might belie a deep cunning. I mean, llamas seem to know what it’s all about, don’t they? Will we humans someday be enslaved by ruthless llama overlords?
Now there is something else we can add to the list of miracles that llamas can perform: the ability to detect caffeine! In an effort to find an easy, portable way to detect caffeine in liquid beverages, researchers went straight to the llamas. What was needed was a chemical that would bind and react with caffeine, producing a color change that would indicate the drug’s presence in an ostensibly decaffeinated drink, like my favorite: the café mocha. Antibodies were the obvious choice. Part of an animal’s immune system, antibodies are proteins that recognize and bind to specific foreign molecules, like those of bacteria and viruses. Most antibodies denature at high temperature, however, which is a problem when hot coffee is involved. Llamas to the rescue! Apparently, the antibodies of camelids can withstand high temps. Llamas were injected with caffeine, they produced antibodies against the drug, and there you have it. This is the same type of procedure involved in immunization, by the way. The llama caffeine test isn’t commercially available yet, but this recently published research is promising.
I am drinking coffee right now. It’s really good, especially the caffeine part. But I sometimes try to quit, and sometimes I want coffee at night. Under those circumstances, I want to be sure that if I ask the barista chick for a decaf mocha that that is what I get. I therefore bow down to the llama overlords and sing their praises. Here is the song I sing to them (in case you missed it the first time). OBEY!