Selective Breeding: How the CRISPR-Cas9 could potentially change the way cultivators look at cannabis

Apr 26, 2019

Despite its popularity, cannabis is one of the most unexplored plants on the planet. It was not until 2011 when a group of Canadian biologists published the first cannabis genome by sequencing the DNA and RNA strains of Purple Kush. Since then, researchers and cultivators have been studying the plant closely, realizing that simple genetic changes can create a myriad of diversity.

This diversity can present itself in the appearance of the plant, the smell of the plant, but most importantly, this diversity is needed to enhance and specify the medicinal qualities of cannabis. By augmenting the genome, cultivators can grow cannabis with specific qualities needed to treat specific patients.

A new piece of research technology could potentially bring cannabis breeding to the next level. The CRISPR-cas9 is a biotechnological tool that can literally cut and edit plant DNA sequences. It focuses on specific sections of DNA code that are repeating and uses an enzyme that acts like a pair of scissors to snip away unwanted code. Breeders can then integrate the genetic qualities they want and grow diverse and healthy crops of cannabis or industrial hemp.

A brief history of selective plant breeding:

Genetically modifying agriculture so that it can fend off insects, mold, and viruses has been the goal of plant breeders since humans started growing their own crops. Ancient humans have been selectively breeding plants for centuries, from hemp to corn to rapeseed to cannabis. Usually, this process is tedious, requiring cultivators to screen every plant, saving the ones they want and disposing of the rest.

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In the 1950s, cultivators started using gamma radiation. Plants were exposed to gamma rays in order to alter their genetic makeup, which was successful, but it came with some risky side effects. It also still required cultivators to screen each plant for the desired genetic compounds, taking up time and resources.

How CRISPR simplifies the complexities of selective cannabis breeding:

When it comes to cannabis, creating new strains with these methods is not an easy task. For a long time, there were only two recognizable strains of marijuana: indica and sativa. Today, in an industry growing as quickly as this one, breeders and biologists need to meet the more complex demands of the cannabis consumer.

In his presentation on the CRISPR-Cas9 at the CannaTech 2017 Conference, hemp breeder Yoav Giladi explains the growing complexities of the cannabis plant.

“There are many varieties of cannabis that were grown in different conditions, yielding lots and lots of phenotypes,” Yoav states. “There are several traits that breeders needed to fast-forward, like re-shuffling a card deck, in order to create more genetic diversity.”

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Today’s cannabis breeders and cultivators do not have the time to screen each yield and cannot afford to dispose of cannabis plants that do not match the genetic requirements. They also cannot afford to leave behind any residual toxins that can come from gamma radiation or other traditional modification tools.

The CRISPR creates a selective breeding process that is what Yoav describes as “elegant”. Cannabis cut with CRISPR technology is not considered genetically modified because the process does not leave behind any residual tracers. It allows breeders to go into the genetic code, cut out the traits they do not want with a natural enzyme, and leave the plant otherwise unaffected by the process.

The future of selective cannabis breeding:

According to his presentation, Yoav is using the CRISPR to create plants that are genetically immune to viruses that eat away at a plant’s protein. He wants to apply this technology to cannabis plants and help breeders and cultivators protect their yields.

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At the writing of this article, the CRISPR-Cas9 technology is limited to research projects only and is not yet available for the commercial cannabis industry. Anyone interested in learning more about what CRISPR can do for cannabis should contact Yoav Giladi and discover what new genetic potential this powerful biotech tool can bring to the cannabis industry.

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