Mapping plant genetics for cannabis is creating a database for growers and producers to select the exact traits they need.
Cannabis quality is increasing year after year. Why? As cannabis gains medical and recreational acceptance, investors are throwing more money at its production. And with more significant investment, product quality increases. But how exactly do growers cultivate the best plants possible? What is it about their approach that produces higher quality plants? Much of this improvement can be attributed to plant genetics, and more specifically, understanding the cannabis genome to advance production efficiency and quality.
How Do Growers Improve The Quality Of Cannabis Plants?
We’ve seen the rapid improvement of crops over the last few decades because of genomics, and now that cannabis is becoming more available and widely grown, it only makes sense that genomics would become a priority for growers. Cannabis that is more effective and is grown faster means more money and happier consumers.
Dr. Oori Weisshaus and his colleagues at NRGene – a US-based genomics company specializing in cannabis breeding – are mapping the cannabis genome. In doing so, they’re gathering data that will help growers speed up cannabis breeding. According to Weisshaus, part of this process involves breeding specific cannabis plants for particular benefits. To do so, researchers focus on single nucleotide polymorphisms, also known as SNPs, which are individual genetic variants. For example, in humans, hundreds of millions of SNPs explain phenotypical traits such as eye color and one’s predisposition to experience genetically-driven outcomes like androgenic alopecia (hair loss).
SNPs in cannabis tell growers about genetic characteristics regarding the cannabis plant, such as growth. This arms cultivators with the knowledge to grow genetically superior plants that will mature faster and provide a specific outcome. For instance, they can produce plants that are better for ALS or IBD.
Exploring the Cannabis Genome
Scientists are exploring something revolutionary: the cannabis genome. A genome is defined as the genetic material of an organism. Researchers have made it clear over the last few years that understanding the cannabis genome could be the key to improving the production process of cannabis.
Mowgli Holmes, co-founder, and CEO of Phylos Bioscience explains that DNA sequencing is what helps us identify a plant. This allows growers to communicate to customers which plant to buy for which condition, and which effects they can expect to experience. To analyze a cannabis strain’s DNA, researchers put ground cannabis into a container and added a buffer solution that extracts relevant genetic information from cells. Researchers then separate the cell’s various molecules to take DNA for sequencing.
Expanding Cannabis Genome Research
Holmes and his team have set up a program through which cannabis growers send plant samples to their company. The team adds this genetic information to a database alongside thousands of genetic samples from different plants. This information helps growers, as well as consumers, understand which strains of cannabis are most beneficial and also helps to advance the general understanding of the medicinal properties of the plant. Once researchers understand how cannabis DNA (or any medicinal plant for that matter) produces different therapeutic compounds, then growers can breed specific strains to increase the beneficial properties by containing more/less of these properties.
The genome of cannabis is simpler than other plants, according to assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Nolan Kane from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Kane explains that other plants have genomes that are up to 40 times larger than cannabis. This is fantastic news given cannabis’s disproportionate medicinal properties compared to most other plants.
Why Are Plant Genetics Important For The Cannabis Industry?
Consumers want to know how much THC and CBD they’re getting. Some people genuinely don’t want to feel intoxicated and are only using cannabis for specific medicinal properties (such as reducing inflammation, pain, or seizure frequency). The problem is that there are many other cannabinoids in cannabis that modulate the effects of THC and CBD. In other words, a simple THC and CBD label may be too simplistic.
It’s important for patients to have a consistent experience. Startups that are gathering a DNA database on the cannabis genome will help growers consistently produce accurate cannabinoid levels, which minimizes variability in of consumer experience. Growers are able to selectively breed specific natural genetic variations to gain this consistency. So, they can “specialize” a cannabis plant for a specific purpose.
It’s important to note that each person is likely to experience one single strain differently due to their own DNA and natural neurochemical variation in their endocannabinoids receptors. This adds further complexity to specializing strains. Nonetheless, this is an exciting and realistic advancement we’ll see in the near future.
As the cannabis industry expands, the competition continues to increase. Naturally, the demand for higher quality products is also increasing. As we learn more about cannabis plant genetics and its genome, our reliance on genetic services to inform cannabis will grow. Fortunately, unlike other scientific meddling with cannabis, this is going to benefit patients the most.