Modernizing the Cannabis Industry

Genomics tools have the potential to transform Cannabis cultivation – but collaboration between science and industry is essential for success.

By Daniela Vergara, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Colorado Boulder, Founder and President, Agricultural Genomics Foundation and Co-founder Cannabis Genomic Research Initiative; and Reggie Gaudino, VP of Scientific Operations, Director of Genetics, Director of Intellectual Property, Steep Hill Labs Inc.

Genomics has become increasingly important in multiple areas of biology. By understanding the genome – the whole collection of genes from an organism – instead of focusing on isolated genes, we can reach stronger conclusions about the location of particular genes within the genome, the importance of interactions between genes, the evolution of genes, and the potential for particular gene combinations in organisms. Perhaps most importantly, genomic studies allow genes to be associated with physical characteristics – a powerful way to improve breeding and to develop crops with combinations of desired traits.

Genomic tools (for example, genetic maps) have been developed to improve breeding for multiple crops, such as corn, rice, soy, and wheat. However, for the genus Cannabis (despite its long history with humans, and the fact that it is the most widely used recreational drug in the world), such tools are in their relative infancy.

Right now, we have the technology to improve Cannabis cultivation and progress is being made despite a stringent legal environment. As with many areas of science, innovation is not always immediate and requires some patience; we hope that the cannabis industry can begin to fully support scientific investigations and understand that we are all working towards the same goal.

It is fair to say that there is some reluctance to accept (and disseminate) new genomic information on Cannabis. After all, the cannabis industry is an old one, with some individual breeders and growers having worked on Cannabis cultivation for decades. Some view scientists as outsiders who want to harm the plant that they have protected and nurtured through so many hard years of governmental and social disapproval. But the reality is that, over time, distortion and misinterpretations of the plant’s biology have contributed to a pseudoscience of cannabis that may be hard to break – and it’s compounded by a lack of access to (or understanding of) peer-reviewed scientific information. The upshot is that some scientists may feel hesitant to share new evidence that appears to be contradictory to current thinking – which is actually not a unique problem to cannabis science! For example, recent genomic studies have shown that the ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ groupings might not be factual. There are also examples of people grouping non-related varieties as ‘sativa’ or ‘indica’ or giving two unrelated cultivars the same name. Whether or not the industry recognizes this evidence at some point in the future remains to be seen...

“Right now, we have the technology to improve Cannabis cultivation – and progress is being made despite a stringent legal environment.”

Fortunately, despite some hesitancy from both the scientific and industry sides, some important cooperative relationships between cannabis scientists have been established between museums, advocacy groups, botanical gardens, and even some dispensaries, breeders and growers. Such collaborators are brought together by evidence that genetic tools produce precise, direct, fast and economic results for Cannabis breeding, allowing the community to move away from a sole reliance on good fortune and physical plant characteristics.

It goes without saying that scientific research, especially genomic investigation, is time consuming and requires intensive labor and expertise from specialists. In other words, it’s expensive. But with just a little economic support from both the private and public sectors, interesting and useful results are already being produced. Indeed, the projects proposed by current cannabis research groups have direct significance for industry, medicine and agriculture. A better understanding of the genetic differences between the various varieties will be crucial for breeders, making the process of crossing divergent lineages more efficient and predictable. The genomic tools will also be important for hemp production, as large-scale agricultural production is only permitted for reliably low- or zero-THC plants. Conversely, medical applications, for which it is vital that plants produce highly consistent levels of biologically-active compounds, will also benefit from more accurate information.

As an important side note, we think it’s important that scientific findings are made publically available, where possible. If cannabis scientists are encouraged to publish genomic (and other) studies, we can prevent important data disappearing into the vaults of just a few corporations who wish to dominate the industry (and who likely recognize that good science can drive down costs by boosting efficiency). Open information also allows the general public to make more informed decisions. Supporting scientists who want to make their results available to a non-scientific public will go along way to ensuring ongoing and strong collaborations between the scientific community and the cannabis industry.

In conclusion, we believe that genomics will revolutionize Cannabis breeding. How fast? Well, that will depend on how well we all work together.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors with their own experiences, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any company or institution.

We would like to thank Alisha Holloway for her useful comments and suggestions.