The Wild West of Sensimilla

Branna Z. March 29, 2019 0 comments

Sensimilla are highly potent female cannabis plants that may be threatening future medicinal opportunities for cannabis medicine.

Cannabis sativa is a plant from Central Asia. It has seen medical and recreational use for thousands of years. People have created different varieties through cross breeding, inbreeding and the mixing of genomes. Some growers are working to preserve the ideal THC potency by using sensimilla, mothers that do not produce seeds. In this case, clones are made from the sensimilla mother to keep the genetic line tight.

Is That Strain What You Think It is? Probably Not.

Strains are not easily differentiated by genotype, and only moderate similarities have been observed between C. indica and C. sativa. On the other hand, there has been a large genetic difference observed among identically named strains. This is largely because controlled programs to breed specific strains are scarce and a heavily guarded secret in the underground. The result is different plants, with totally different phytochemical profiles having the same strain name.  It is even possible that the genetically identical plants has been sold under different names, from the different producers.

At this point in our global medical cannabis journey, there is no clear definition of the concept of a strain. Some estimate that there are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of cannabis strains available in legal and illegal markets.

man's hand holding up cannabis buds

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UBC Study Looks For Strain Similarities

Cannabis producers market their products based on the concentrations of total Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Many assume you can get the same general medicinal effect from the similar ratios of CBD:THC.  However, there is significant anecdotal evidence suggesting that strains with similar ratios have different effects on human physiology. This is due, in part, to the interaction of the other components of cannabis, but also individual physiology of the person.

Metabolomics is the study of metabolites in an animal body. A University of British Columbia research group completed a metabolomics study testing 33 different strains in what is called a ‘chemometric modeling study.’ The intent of the study was to determine phytochemical profiles of the strains and look for similarities to determine what was happening with the genetics of cannabis.

Is Sensimilla Obsession Killing Genetic Diversity?

The major focus of breeding has tended toward increasing the yield of the THC or CBD. Certainly, there other important saleable characteristics, including aroma and color, but these are secondary.

This yield increase comes of  cutting clones from mother plants, feminizing seeds, and producing sensimilla. Basically, the need for a male plant decreases. With that decrease is a potential loss of genetic and phytochemical diversity.

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greenhouse cannabis grow commercial sensimilla

How Are Modern Strains Different?

The “sativa” and “indica” lineages used to describe the cannabis plants based on the geographical origin. Most believe sativa came from the European hemp cultivars and indica from the potent, resinous strains of India.

Most modern strains are dominant in either of these 2 “lineages,” or hybrids between close relatives. Several classification systems have seen proposal. Basically, these are based on a limited number of the phenotypic characteristics, such as leaf shape and color, bud density, and height of the plant.

Some argue, however, that ‘sativa’ and ‘indica’ no longer exist. Chemovar is the more acceptable term in some circles. This term reflects the unique chemical compositions of strains. It works like this: we’ve been told that, typically, indica is higher in CBD, inducing a relaxing effect and sativa are higher in THC, giving it a more energetic vibe.

Most Strains are Different

This is not the case for most strains. There are sativa that are relaxing and indica that are energizing. Chemovar influence on the body is more effected by the non-cannabinoid components, namely terpenes. Mycrene is sedating, limonene is an antidepressant, pinene has anti-anxiety benefit, and beta-caryophyllene is a good painkiller and anti-inflammatory. In fact, we’ve discovered over 400 chemical components so far. Each of these interacts with the others. This makes the phytochemical profile a much more significant predictor of medicinal effect. The practice of honing in on one or two cannabinoids ignores the plant’s chemistry.

sensimilla growing indoors

The strains available in the North American marketplace are closely related to each other. Evaluating single metabolite classes, such as those of THC, doesn’t provide enough information to understand phytochemical diversity. And that means we don’t have a finger on the medicinal effects.

Recent forensic evaluation of the confiscated sensimilla cannabis in US has shown a drastic increase in the THC content in the last 30 years: from 6.3% to 11.5%, but also strains with greater than 20% THC.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Cannabis?

The artificial increase in the THCa production, that gives the greater THC content to the consumer, has resulted in the loss of the CBDa synthase activity. This then reduces CBG and CBD content of the plant. It also diminishes the plants defences, leaving it more vulnerable to pests and infection. Basically, this has ramifications for the future success of the grow and health of the patient. Especially as it could potentially contain pesticides.

The UBC study found fewer ‘lesser’ cannabinoids in the strains with higher THC content. This is important because these might have a significant function that hasn’t been studied yet. With the cannabis medicine there is the “entourage effect” which refers to the synergistic effects of many metabolites that increases pharmacological benefit. And we are only beginning to understand it’s relevance. At the same time, commercial grows are systematically narrowing genetic diversity. What will be the consequence?