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Benefits of Cannabis Genetics for Producing Weed

One of the common complaints about 420 events—aside from the haze that settles over the crowd like a rolling San Francisco fog—is that the celebrations have turned into an excuse to smoke excessive amounts of weed in public. Some of you may be wondering: Isn’t that exactly the point of 420? Sure, we’re as happy as anyone to find a reason to suck a little Donkey Dick before noon on April 20 (or any day, really). However, like Memorial Day, people fire up (the BBQ grill or a blunt) without taking the time to reflect on how we got here. Some might wax poetic about such pot pioneers as Cheech and Chong or activists like Dennis Peron and Ed Rosenthal. Others might make fiery political speeches about nationwide legalization. Being technology geeks, we at Nanalyze thought we’d mark this momentous moment in marijuana by looking at the benefits of cannabis genetics for growing good ganja by profiling a few interesting startups.

Brewing Cannabinoids

Montreal-based Hyasynth has raised about $800,000 in disclosed funding to brew weed. Sort of. What the four-year-old startup actually does is create genetically modified yeast that can produce the plant’s active compounds, called cannabinoids, through a fermentation process that’s not unlike brewing beer. In other words, no buds required. It’s an area of biotechnology that we’ve covered before, especially with synthetic biology companies that are trying to grow meat, milk and even gelatin with yeast in a lab. The active compounds can be produced and extracted at scale for a variety of medical uses, according to the company, which is trying to build partnerships with cannabis pharmaceutical companies and others as it seeks to move beyond the Seed stage.

Benefits of Cannabis Genetics: Ability to scale medical marijuana applications without needing a greenhouse full of weed.

Smells like Weed

Founded in 2014, New West Genetics out of Fort Collins, Colorado, has raised a reported $500,000 toward breeding better weed. The startup is currently focused on industrial hemp—marijuana without the mind-stimulating effects. It applies genomic sequencing and statistical genetic techniques to identify varieties with particularly attractive traits, such as disease and mechanical harvesting. For example, the company is investigating a class of organic compounds called terpenes that are in hemp and hops (a close cousin of cannabis) and which gives the different varieties their aromas and flavors, among other functions. This could lead to breeding strains with particular aromatic characteristics, like Cat Piss.

Benefits of Cannabis Genetics: Investigation of terpenes compounds might lead to the use of cannabis flavors and aromas in beer.

The Clone Wars

Another biotech startup out of Colorado, Front Range Biosciences was founded in 2015 and has raised $4.6 million to date, most of it from two rounds last year. Currently, the company cultures plant tissues to produce high-yielding, disease-free strain clones at scale—up to one million plants at its facility in Lafayette near the hippy epicenter of Boulder. A company official told AgFunder News that Front Range Biosciences would eventually delve into genetic manipulation to improve yield or develop novel strains.

Last year, the company launched a genomics research initiative with the University of California, Davis, that will create a better genome reference for cannabis studies that might eventually benefit medical applications. Like New West Genetics, Front Range Biosciences is also using genetic sequencing and other genetic techniques to identify varieties with attractive agricultural traits like disease resistance.

Benefits of Cannabis Genetics: Ability to produce more disease-free weed.

Update 10/09/2018: Front Range Biosciences has taken in an additional $10 million in a Series A Funding Round to expedite their Clean Stock program in Colorado, California and Canada and meet a portion of the legalized cannabis demand. This brings the company’s total funding to $14.6 million.

Blockchain for Strains

The backstory for Boston-based Medicinal Genomics is almost as interesting as its business—sequencing the DNA of different cannabis strains and storing it on the Bitcoin blockchain. The startup was acquired by a company called Courtagen Life Sciences, which focused on diagnostic neurology testing, back in 2012. However, both Courtagen and Medicinal Genomics were founded by various siblings of the McKernan family. Kevin McKernan had founded Medicinal Genomics in 2011. He had previously worked on the Human Genome Project and claims to be the first scientist to sequence the cannabis genome. Last year, the combined company (Courtage had raised about $65 million through 2015) decided to go all-in on the marijuana part of the business.

An entry in Kannapedia for Purple Cactus #4 shows genetic connections between cannabis strains. Credit: Medicinal Genomics

Medicinal Genomics’ StrainSEEK platform maps and sequences the DNA of different cannabis strains. It also provides a public-facing website called Kannapedia that provides the identity, heritage and chemistry of the cannabis and hemp plants that have been tested using the company’s StrainSEEK service. All of that information is then registered and stored on the Bitcoin blockchain. PCMag reported that this so-called “blockstrain” sequencing has different uses. For consumers, a blockchain-based DNA fingerprint gives patients a way to verify the strain they’re using and its typical therapeutic effects, it said in the article. PCMag also noted that mapping strain DNA to the blockchain helps protect intellectual property for growers by providing a time-stamped log.

Benefits of Cannabis Genetics: Blockstrain sequencing promises to bring more transparency to the industry.

A Galaxy Far, Far Away

The Kannapedia website also include a phylogenetic tree that shows the inferred evolutionary relationships among various cannabis strains based upon similarities and differences in their genetic characteristics. A company founded in 2014 out of Portland called Phylos Bioscience has re-envisioned the concept with a three-dimensional visualization that it calls the Phylos Galaxy. Each node, or star, in the Phylos Galaxy represents a single cannabis plant. The distances between nodes show how similar they are, while the lines show how related they are:

Credit: Phylos Bioscience

The company says the “name game” on sites like Leafly is a very inaccurate way to determine whether or not a strain is what it says it is. “Names aren’t reliable, but DNA data is,” a company official told the Portland Mercury newspaper. The company also uses DNA sampling to determine the sex of a plant within the first week of its life, which means growers can stop wasting their time on male plants and tend to the sweet, sweet flowers of the females.

Benefits of Cannabis Genetics: May someday end the Wild West days of strain names.

Lab Tested

Steep Hill Labs out of Berkeley, California, claims to have opened the first commercial cannabis lab in the United States back in 2008. The company has raised about $9 million, with labs in eight states. Its genetics services include identifying important genetic markers that can be used to breed unique strains for treating specific medical conditions, for example. The startup also developed what it calls the GenKit that only needs a snip of leaf to determine whether a plant is male or female with 99.9 percent accuracy as determined by the presence of a short DNA sequence found only in the Y-chromosome (ie, the male plant).

Benefits of Cannabis Genetics: Identifying genetic markers in specific strains that may one day be used to treat disease.

Conclusion

On one hand, it’s not too hard to grow marijuana. After all, the cannabis plant grows like, well, a weed. On the flip side, you never know what you’re going to get. That’s changed to a large degree, but we’re only beginning to see hard science like genetics being applied to the cannabis industry. That will lead to better and more reliable strain identification, which will eventually benefit medical applications and research, where Israel is a world leader. So, when you light up some Poochie Love today, remember that it takes more than Black Magic to create out-of-this-world bud.

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