As marijuana slowly enjoys wider public and legal acceptance, there's still a lot to be learned about the plant.
Scientists at the University of California Davis—one of the top agricultural research institutions—have started a new project to map the cannabis genome. They're not the first to study cannabis genomics, but they're less interested in weed that gets you super stoned, and more focused on the medicinal and nutritional parts of weed's DNA.
"People have gotten really good at breeding high-THC [weed] for the recreational side," said Jon Vaught, the CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences, a cannabis biotech company that has partnered with the university on the study. "There's really not a lot of work to do there. We're not really focused on that."
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Instead, Vaught told me they see cannabis as the next big commercial crop, especially when it's used for medicine, health supplements like CBD oil, or nutritional products like hemp protein powder. But to help make it as easy and profitable to grow as corn when it's not anything that can get you stoned can be challenging, which is where the genomic research comes in.
The team at UC Davis, led by professor Dario Cantu, has previously mapped the genomes of the arabica coffee bean and the cabernet sauvignon grape, so they're well prepared for the task, which will sequence the hemp genome. Unlike some other research in this area, as a public university, all of the findings will be made public, which means breeders making all kinds of weed will benefit from the study.
"That information will be available for breeders to be able to emphasize certain aspects, so I think that's a big step forward and consistent with our public mission," said Dan Flynn, a spokesperson from UC Davis.
Hemp and marijuana are two separate species, with the major difference being the level of THC they contain. But because they're both cannabis plants, the underlying fundamental information will be broadly applicable, helping breeders isolate new cannabinoids, or make a crop that is better able to withstand different stressors like pests or drought.
Despite years of growers perfecting their art, the world of cannabis science is still rather nascent because, as a Schedule I drug at the federal level, scientists have to get approval from the Drug Enforcement Agency to study pot. Mapping the hemp genome is a good workaround for getting some baseline genetic data.
But until the DEA relaxes its rules—or pot goes the route of gay marriage, which has been proposed—these studies will only give us a glimpse of everything cannabis has to teach us.
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