Mapping the Cannabis Genome

Canadian scientists have made a groundbreaking development when it comes to the marijuana industry: mapping the cannabis genome. They were able to identify how hemp and cannabis both come from the Cannabis Sativa plant but still contain different chemical properties. Here’s how and why that’s important based on a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

  • The US Farm Bill that passed in December delisted hemp as a controlled substance and made it legal as long as the plant has less than 0.3% per dry weight of THC, the compound that gets people high. Should the plant contain more than that threshold, it’s classified as marijuana and federally illegal.
  • The THC limit in the prior point is a bit arbitrary and varies by country, however, to as high as 1% or as low as 0.2%. Whereas biologically, “the distinction between the two forms of cannabis is far less clear-cut, which poses a problem for those breeders looking to stay on the right side of the law.”
  • This distinction matters for both hemp and marijuana growers alike. The former needs to make sure they are compliant as they seek to grow plants with mostly CBD, the non-psychoactive compound that people claim has therapeutic benefits. The latter also has a “vested interest in understanding the genetic basis of cannabinoid production”, as they “are aiming to cultivate new varieties of THC-laden weed for users of the plant” in legal US states or Canada.
  • The upshot: “With genetic markers linked to desirable traits such as THC content, plant breeders can use DNA analyses to screen seedlings for sought-after properties instead of waiting months for the plants to mature into adults… Others hope to achieve the same end result through direct manipulation of DNA.”
  • We’ll spare you the specifics (link at the end of this section), but chief scientific officer Jonathan Page of one of the biggest marijuana companies in the world, Aurora Cannabis, said it “was a very tough nut to crack scientifically.” Ultimately, it took several years, “a new kind of ‘long read’ sequencing technology, and a loosening of federal regulations that allowed researchers to handle cannabis DNA.”

As for how this will benefit public marijuana companies, consider these use cases:

  • THC and CBD are just two cannabinoids from the cannabis sativa plant, but there are others that also reportedly have therapeutic benefits. Ideally, companies will be able to take cannabinoid-production genes, “transfer the DNA into yeast or bacteria growing in large tanks, feed the genetically modified microbes a steady diet of sugar, and derive pure tinctures of… many other obscure cannabinoids with supposed therapeutic properties—a process akin to brewing beer.” 

    According to CEO and chairman of Canadian marijuana producer Cronos Group Mike Gorenstein, “there are rare cannabinoids that you just can’t get from the plant in any commercial quantity.” That’s why the company partnered with biotech firm Ginkgo Bioworks to “produce eight cultured cannabinoids… for use in the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical markets” in the way we just described.
  • Cofounder of Inplanta Biotechnology, Darryl Hudson, believes “genetically modifications will be the ‘next wave’ of cannabis breeding.” The Director of Genetics Research Rob Roscow at Canopy Growth even “claims to have developed a method for making THC-free and CBD-free plants via precision gene editing of the relevant genes.” 

    Additionally, the Chief Scientific Officer at Trait Biosciences, Richard Sayre, has discovered a way to boost cannabinoid levels within the leaf tissue of the plant that will create “a tremendous increase in yield while also cutting harvest time.”

To sum up, here are our key takeaways:

  • The director of production science Jeremy Plumb at Prūf Cultivar in Portland thinks the production landscape for cannabis will change dramatically: “Within three years… none of the plants that we’re growing currently will continue to be produced, and there will be unbelievable new varieties as a result of marker-assisted hybridization and trait-based selection.”
  • Consequently, hemp and marijuana breeders will be able to create new kinds of cannabis with specific chemical profiles, including plants that are highly concentrated with certain medicinal properties. We see this as a major market opportunity for public companies that sell marijuana or CBD to create unique and diversified product offerings as they try to gain market share from competitors.
  • Knowing the genetic map of cannabis will not only lead to new strains, but also enable breeders to grow the plant more efficiently and resistant to disease. Both should help companies boost supply and lower costs, benefiting their bottom lines.

Source: https://www.pnas.org/content/116/18/8638

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