The cannabis industry is unlike many other agricultural sectors because producers have historically lacked a fundamental scientific understanding of cannabis’s genetic makeup. However, as cannabis becomes legal in more states, researchers are developing a more complete picture of the genetic makeup of cannabis and hemp.
Genetics play a major role in the plant-touching side of the industry, enabling cultivators, breeders, and testers to better understand the product they’re handling. With a genetic map of cannabis comes more precise breeding, optimized growing methods, and product continuity. However, federal prohibition and subsequent restrictions on research left the cannabis industry behind – until now. A complete picture of the cannabis genome has finally emerged, carrying with it great promise for both producers and end-users.
In January 2018, the team behind Sunrise Genetics unveiled the complete cannabis genome at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego. The announcement of their discovery spurred a huge leap forward in scientific understanding of cannabis.
Although the research is relatively new and only fully available to the scientific community, many are excited about the possibilities the findings hold. Breeders hope to use a cannabis genetic profile to breed out unwanted characteristics while maintaining the most desirable. Cultivators want the genome map to reduce cost while producing a better, more consistent crop. The cannabis genome can also be used to test for continuity and better understand the lineage of a strain.
All this translates to a better experience for the end user. Not only will the consumer know definitively which strain of cannabis they are purchasing, but they will be able to understand the effects that strain will produce. With a complete genome map, the industry can standardize production of strains, so that a consumer can go to any dispensary, order a specific strain, and have the same experience regardless of the supplier.
Mapping the cannabis genome also means developing a better understanding of the plant’s medical applications. Companies can utilize the cannabis genome to improve yield and medicinal quality, for example. Moreover, genetic sequencing can be used to create cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals to target specific conditions. This is because genetic sequencing enables companies to isolate the genes of the plant responsible for the specific effects of a strain on users and subsequently develop a product that leverages those characteristics. Patients won’t need to experiment with their medication any longer, but will rather be able to select products tailored to specific uses, such as anti-nausea and sleep promotion.
Genome mapping is nothing new to the agricultural industry, but because of marijuana’s status as a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), cannabis has been the odd man out.
Many research universities and scientists have been unwilling to study cannabis for fear of losing government grants. Even in the rare case when research institutions, such as the University of Minnesota, were permitted to study the plant, their research was so tightly restricted that it took more than a decade to even make gradual progress in understanding cannabis and hemp.
It’s much easier to study cannabis today, given the fact that its legal status is changing in many states. However, regulatory barriers remain due to the ongoing federal prohibition. Scientists cannot ship samples across state lines to colleagues, nor can they begin research without approval from a slew of government agencies and review boards. But there are signs that research could become even easier, like the progress of the 2018 Farm Bill, which includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hemp legalization measure.
It can also be difficult to find partners to work with because of the legal status of cannabis. Even as legal cannabis becomes a more common occurrence, a stigma continues to overshadow the industry. Between navigating the unclear legal landscape and finding willing partners, cannabis research has moved at a slower pace than the industry would like.
Luckily, with the unveiling of the cannabis genome, the future looks much brighter. As more states legalize and the cannabis industry goes mainstream, it’s likely that the pace of research will continue. The cannabis genome also gives researchers a lot of information to work with and will spur new insights into the nature of the plant and new products that can be derived from it. That can only be good news for the industry––from cultivators and breeders to the end user alike.