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Smoke clears on marijuana genome: scientists lay groundwork for future cannabis research

By in News/Technology
Doing research on marijuana the old fashioned way.
A University of Saskatchewan scientist has helped map the genetic blueprint of marijuana, potentially leading to improved research and expanded use of the Cannabis sativa plant.

The project was conducted through a collaboration between plant biochemist Jon Page and his team at the U of S and molecular biologist Tim Hughes and his team at the University of Toronto.

They believe their findings, made available to researchers worldwide on Oct. 20, can act as a foundation in developing new strains of medical marijuana, as well as strengthen certain traits in hemp.

The investigation used the Cannabis sativa genomes of Purple Kush, a marijuana strain widely used for medicinal purposes, and the Finola variety of hemp, which does not flower and is often used as a source of fibres to make rope and cloth.

Hughes first contacted Page in 2009 to gauge his interest in sequencing the genetic code of the plant.

“He said if we are interested in [mapping] a genome like cannabis, this is the time,” said Page, who has been studying the chemical properties of cannabis since 2001. “We spent about 18 months on the project, start to finish, and it was possible because the technology for DNA sequencing has advanced so much in the last 2 to 3 years.”

So far only about 20 other plant genomes have been sequenced and they have primarily been large food crops, like rice and corn.

Page says what intrigued him about the Cannabis genome was the plant’s medicinal uses, explaining that it produces a large diversity of valuable chemical compounds, or cannabinoids.

“THC is the [cannabinoid] everyone knows about from the newspaper — or the party on Friday night — but it is only one of about 110 or so of these” cannabinoids, said Page. “So, really the genome has a lot of secrets in the metabolic pathways leading to these compounds. And a lot of them may have useful activity in treating disease and pain relief.”

Now that the genetic underpinnings of Cannabis sativa are mapped, Page says pharmaceutical breeders will likely be able to target specific unusual cannabinoids and extract them through new strains in larger amounts. The results could then be tested for medicinal value.

He also pointed to the applications the research could bring to the hemp industry.

“Hemp breeders will be able to use the information to breed for a number of different traits, be it healthier oils, better quality fibre, cold tolerance, pest resistance, all those kind of things plant breeders are usually interested in,” Page said.

Further, he said the data could be applied to DNA forensics. For instance, if law enforcement discover a harvested field of cannabis, they could then run tests on the stalks of the plants to determine whether the crop is illegal marijuana or legal hemp.

One of the key findings, the researcher said, was discovering that hemp and marijuana are significantly different on a molecular level. Page says it completely debunks the myth that many in the general public still believe: that hemp contains traces of THC.

Page says cannabis has proven to be a useful, multi-purpose plant that archaeological evidence shows humans have been using for 6,000 years or more.

“But it has really been held back in the last century or so because of the laws on marijuana use. However, one thing we want to make clear here is that there are a lot of different uses for cannabis and the genome can be used to help develop those uses further.”

The research has already gotten positive feedback from some quarters.

Nathan Holowaty, former leader of the now-defunct Saskatchewan Marijuana Party, was encouraged by the report and echoed the sentiment that cannabis is an extremely beneficial and underused plant.

“This research will enhance our understanding of cannabis and unlock further medicinal potentials of this wonder-plant which have been suppressed for many years,” Holowaty said.

Photo: Bryn Becker/The Sheaf

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