10.19.2016
strains

How Plant Genomics Is Bringing in the Next Age of Super Weed

Science is finally all about improving pot plant chemistry.

A botanical revolution is raging across all major agricultural sectors, and with the rise of legal cannabis as a cash crop, science could boost the quality of your weed too. Go ahead and fire up your anticipation! The latest discoveries in genomics, or the science behind structure, function, evolution, and the mapping of genomes in plants, are destined to go up in smoke—in a good way. 

Now, the only thing independent cannabis growers have to do is take advantage of these scientific developments while moving from underground basement grows to commercialized cannabis farms, all while avoiding a takeover by some Monsanto-type agricultural behemoth.

During the Cannabis Science Conference, held in Portland, Oregon, in early October, Alisha Holloway, director of bioinformatics for Phylos Bioscience, and Reggie Gaudino, vice president for scientific operations and director of intellectual property at Steep Hill Labs, shared shared a vision of advanced plant genomics helping weed growers save time and money, and—most importantly to you, the consumer—create better weed.

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Holloway and Gaudino presented a future where old-school weed growers paired the newest and brightest genomic science with the decades of in-the-field knowledge.

Now that cannabis can be cultivated under significantly more-favorable legal indoor and outdoor grows, researchers and growers are just beginning to learn the possibilities for pot plants.

The underground nature of cannabis has hindered research on cannabis cultivation—especially when compared to the massive troves of analysis available on other basic crops. Now that cannabis can be cultivated under significantly more-favorable legal indoor and outdoor grows, researchers and growers are just beginning to tap the possibilities for hot-rodding pot plants.

While cannabis prohibition has been in effect, plant potency grew from 8 percent to 30 percent. The black market demand for higher THC content pushed growers to crossbreed plants, creating an immense variety of ultra-potent, super-profitable strains.

As cannabis comes into the legal light, one challenge is how to replicate these "boutique" grows. Here's where genomics comes in: Alisha Holloway of Phylos Bioscience notes that by "analyzing the genetic sequencing of particular cannabis strains, growers can learn what products they actually have. Is this Sour Diesel plant actually Sour Diesel—or is it something else?"

She adds: "Breeders can learn what variations exist and then apply modern genomic techniques to test for pest resistance and robust stature for growing in different conditions." 

Cannabis Clone (via)

At the dispensary end of the supply chain, customers can rely on accurate genomic labeling for assurance that the products they purchase have the desired potency, terpenes, and other attributes. In addition, medical professionals can offer more accurate treatment regimes to their patients by knowing the precise cannabinoid profile in a particular strain they are prescribing.

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Armed with the knowledge provided by a solid cannabis genome assembly, growers can breed strains to produce specific levels of THC and CBD. Dialing up the CBD is of particular interest to the medical market, where value is placed on cannabis continuing the highest possible level of CBD. According to Steep Hill Labs' Gaudino, there is a CBD ceiling: "There comes a point where you hit the top level for an enzyme."

Genomic sequencing can enable scientists to employ the gene combinations that consistently produce this top level of CBD.

Genomic sequencing can enable scientists to employ the gene combinations that consistently produce this top level of CBD.

Phylos Bioscience has utilized DNA sequence data to create a 3D map called the Phylos Galaxy, which illustrates the relationships between cannabis varieties. In this galaxy, each node represents a single cannabis plant. Connecting lines illustrate each strain's primary relations. The distances between each node signifies how far apart the originating strains have become. Different regions are clustered into tribes, making for a easier identification of similar strains. Through this mapping of historical and current cannabis plants, researchers can begin to understand this plant's evolution: Where did this plant originate? What are the differentials between strains?

Steep Hill Labs GenKit (via)

Growers can apply this data when marketing their products in particular ways. For example, while not every plant has a sex determination system, cannabis has ten chromosomes. Using a GenKit™, the team at Steep Hill Labs can identify male and CBD-rich seedlings within a few days, improving cannabis breeding schedules.

Holloway predicts that "by the end of the decade, breeders will be releasing new cannabis varieties we haven't even dreamed of yet."

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Once the genetic identity of a particular plant has been established, a grower can determine if their product qualifies as a particular, unique strain. Just as wine is promoted as coming from a certain region or produced from particular grapes, in the near future, genomics research should give cannabis growers the data required for varietal marketing. 

At present, researchers rely on samples sent in by growers, which may produce somewhat skewed results. Farmers tend to send in only their top shelf buds to be tested, which does provide a measure of consistency.

Buds cannot be transported via U.S. mail, but prepared DNA is clear for shipping. As the genomic sequencing programs continue to grow, prepared DNA mailed in for analysis is being added to ever-growing DNA databases. Steep Hill Labs has planned a strain archiving program that, according to Gaudino, will preserve DNA integrity for up to 20 years, allowing researchers to compare ancestral DNA and ascertain trends as new developments and strains of cannabis emerge.

With more than 10 million cannabis variants, Gaudino notes that universal cannabis sequencing is nowhere near complete. But, as this research intensifies, Holloway predicts that "by the end of the decade, breeders will be releasing new cannabis varieties we haven't even dreamed of yet."

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