Mapping the Cannabis Genome
The genome for Cannabis sativa, the scientific name for both the cannabis and hemp, was first mapped by Canadian researchers in 2011. Firms like Phylos Bioscience are getting a more detailed look now and isolating certain genes. Due to federal illegality, research into cannabis has lagged. But now that it’s the fastest growing industry in America, a loosening up is occurring, allowing projects to probe deeper into the secrets of the plant. That and new scanners, which can identify tens of thousands of base pairs in DNA at a time, have sped up the unraveling of cannabis DNA and with it, it’s secrets.
Phylos Bioscience has made it’s sequencing data public, which you can find here. The company also allows growers to send samples of their plants in, in order to receive a report on its genetic information. They’ve sequenced thousands of different plants so far. What’s next is to find out how these genes developed and understand what biochemicals each produces. Now, scientists in a joint US-Canadian venture have identified the genes which produce the psychoactive component THC and non-psychoactive CBD–thought to have a slew of health properties.
Identifying the Origins of these Cannabinoids
Certain genetic alterations occurred in the plant’s past to produce these highly sought after cannabinoids or biochemicals found in cannabis. A newly released chromosome map, showing where certain genes are located on cannabis chromosomes, allowed researchers to identify the origins of CBD and THC. These genes were located among what was previously thought to be “junk” DNA. Such DNA was deposited into the plant’s genome via retroviruses, over the course of its evolution. Researchers believe 70-75% of the plant’s genome originates from viral sources.
Although it sounds creepy, it’s actually quite normal. Tim Hughes, a molecular geneticist at the University of Toronto, told the Toronto Star, “…virtually all organisms have something like this,” meaning leftover viral genes. This includes humans. The cellular mechanism responsible for arranging such genes can be interrupted by viral DNA. This mechanism, according to Hughes, “normally responsible for keeping things tidy and organized gets confused when it sees multiple copies of the same thing, and it makes mistakes.”
Such mistakes lead to the development of new compounds, and researchers believe this process bore us THC and CBD. Besides this discovery, researchers found the genetic underpinnings of the cannabinoid cannabichromene (CBC). CBC is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties. Scientists also found the gene which determines potency. One thing researchers have yet to discover is how CBD, THC, and other such compounds help promote the plant’s survival.
These Discoveries will Affect the Industry
What are the implications? Researchers believe breeding efforts will be sped up. Plants will soon be grown more sustainably. But it goes beyond that. Knowing the location of such genes allows one to manipulate them, meaning one could, at the genetic level, dictate how much CBD or THC a strain contains.
What’s more, plants could be genetically engineered to resist pests and disease. It’ll also allow for the growing of hemp plants completely devoid of THC, for CBD cultivation. These genetic discoveries might also help scientists determine which genes are responsible for a strain’s terpene profile, which determines its unique taste and aroma.
Some in the industry worry that unearthing all of the plant’s genetic information might allow big companies to patent say a certain strain. It could just as well invalidate such a patent, finding that what was once considered a unique strain is actually quite common. Big Pharma, however, may use such genetic information to find out how such cannabinoids are made, then reverse engineer them in a lab, and come out with patents for medications based on them. Phylos Bioscience is fighting against such patenting. Since the information in its database is accessible to everyone, this proves it isn’t new and so, may not be patentable.
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