A Real THC Scientist Talks DNA of Weed and Patenting Pot

Is your blue dream really blue dream, and can you truly ever own it?

As the country grapples with how cannabis legalization actually looks, smells, and regulates when put into practice, intellectual property is one aspect of the weed world that is being heavily scrutinized. 

Monetization dreamers are asking: Can we patent pot? Are proprietary strains of cannabis a thing? 

One innovator with a vested interest in this unclear future is Kevin McKernan, a Human Genome Project (HGP) researcher and one of the inquiring minds credited with first mapping the cannabis genome in 2011––a task that a number of scientific endeavors have taken up in the time since.

Post HGP, McKernan founded Medicinal Genomics. Through the Massachusetts-based company’s recently launched StrainSEEK service, he hopes to empower cultivators of legal cannabis to discern accurate genetic information about the plants they grow; and to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions, when seeking out new strains. 

In today’s climate of misinformation and misguided legislation, this is a more crucial and difficult task than your helpful budtender might have you believe.

The KIND phoned McKernan in Denver, Colorado, a city described as central to “America’s legal weed experiment.” The scientific entrepreneur was in town pitching StrainSEEK to Colorado growers.

The KIND: Why should cannabis consumers and medicinal patients care about StrainSEEK? Why should cannabis businesses?

Kevin McKernan: There is a lot of anecdotal information out there about how different strains do different things to different people. Consumers tend to stick to strains that work for their medical condition, or that meet their recreational needs. These strains, or the effects they produce, can “change,” without much notice. The tracking systems that we currently employ don’t really track any kind of genetic certification. Someone might get used to using a strain such as Blue Dream. When the dispensary runs out, and a new batch comes in, possibly from a different supplier, there could be a shift in the cannabinoids, or the terpenes. The consumer then goes through a whole new “discovery process.”

The KIND: How does definitive strain DNA play into the logic of “strains as intellectual property"? There is a lot of conversation around “patenting pot.” 

Kevin McKernan: One patent was issued in August of 2015. I think that surprised everybody. The challenge that patent applicants may face, is that the patent that was issued last year describes a CBD/THC hybrid plant not high in one terpene called myrcene. This is a fairly broad category of plant. It covers a variety of strains, and has likely been in existence for a number of years, but there just isn’t any notarized proof of prior use. 

The sativa vs. indica lines are becoming blurred. There is no longer a heavy distinction between these two genetically.

What [StrainSEEK] does is prove the existence of unique strain DNA. So if you want to defend your IP rights, this service would be a good tool to use. You can prove that [certain strains] existed at a certain timeframe, and you won’t get counterfeited by a patent that surfaces years from now. I sense more people are interested in defensive than offensive. It can be difficult to get a gene patent alone. You would need something beyond the sequence to get the patent. 

The KIND: How do you provide tangible evidence of the genetic information gleaned from sequencing cannabis DNA?

Kevin McKernan: The sequencing that people do with us is digitally notarized and protected by cryptography. Every strain that we sequence, we submit the data into a blockchain transaction. This cements the proof of existence into an architecture that can’t be changed. This will allow [the intellectual property owner] to prove their strain exists, without sharing the data. When an entry goes into the blockchain system, it’s considered as being written in digital stone. This is the same as publishing your encryption key in a major newspaper––the key is public proof that the data it unlocks exists. 

We also have a lot of clients who are publishing data as open source. It’s interesting to watch both models play out.

The KIND: Have you experienced any sort of information gap between StrainSEEK's desired end user—cultivators, growers, etc.—and getting them to come on board?

Kevin McKernan: Most people we’ve met so far have embraced it. They see a way to guarantee what people are purchasing. The Colorado market is very interesting.

In that marketplace, people are really doing unsafe, essentially "scratch-and-sniff tests." Is this really the strain I’m paying a marked-up price for? Will I pay a higher price to enjoy the aspects of this strain? This portion of the market is generally very receptive to the concept of a genetic-certification system. Some people now only want to buy genetically certified cannabis.

it’s not like a strain high in THC will just switch one day and begin to produce buds high in CBD. This is a genetically governed event. 

This certification also puts strains on a map of every other genetic sample we’ve seen before. So a cultivator could theoretically know how different their strain might be from a Snoop Dogg, or Bob Marley strain. It also maps all of the terpene and phenotype information. Cultivators can consider crossing strains for a more diverse outcome. 

The KIND: Many brands claim their products can or will elicit a consistent, predictable experience. Does your genetic sequencing seem to back up these claims?

Kevin McKernan: It’s still too early to definitively make those claims. Now that we’re almost 800 samples deep, we’re seeing that the sativa vs. indica lines are becoming blurred. There is no longer a heavy distinction between these two genetically. We’re also a bit skeptical of subjective reviews given about strains. The effects they elicit are very individualized, patient-to-patient. You can’t really answer that question without also having the human genetics.

The KIND: Taking into account that cultivation laws differ from state-to-state, how much of a variance can be present in a strain cultivated using different grow scenarios? Does this alter effects when consumed?

Kevin McKernan: The genetics of anything are the "hand that we’re dealt." It does matter how you play them but there are limits if your hand has no aces. Somebody might grow a strain that will have a slightly different terpene profile based on whether it's grown indoors versus outdoors, but it’s not like a strain high in THC will just switch one day and begin to produce buds high in CBD. This is a genetically governed event. We’re first looking to work with states that do “seed-to-sale” programs, such as METRC (Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting and Compliance) in Colorado. We can link our StrainSEEK to that tracking system.

The KIND: Has the level of difficulty in obtaining samples changed since you first sequenced the cannabis gene in 2011––in a hotel in Amsterdam to avoid breaking any laws here? 

Kevin McKernan: It’s much better than in 2011, but could be easier. Cannabis is federally illegal. We can’t accept flower samples in Massachusetts; so we work with third party labs to purify the DNA and send it to us. We're hopeful for change.