Researchers from the University of British Columbia, Canada, sequenced the genomes of various cannabis plants to see what particular genes give certain strains their characteristic flavours.
They eventually found around 30 terpene synthase genes that contribute to the diverse flavours of cannabis, from lemony to skunky to earthy. Terpenes are fragrant molecules that produce odours like limonene, myrcene or pinene. These are surprisingly similar to the number of genes that play a crucial role in grapevine flavour for the wine industry.
“The limonene compound produces a lemon-like flavour and myrcene produces the dank, earthy flavour characteristic of purple kush,” said graduate student Judith Booth.
The researchers also found the gene that’s responsible for cannabis’ signature terpene, called beta-caryophyllene, which can also interact with cannabinoid receptors in the human body. A very genetically literate grower could infuse this gene in non-cannabis plants to extract cannabis flavours without having to grow the plant itself, which in most of the world is illegal. In places where it’s legal recreationally or for medical use, like in some two dozen American states, this information could prove as useful as genetic studies have been for the wine industry.
While the soil and microclimate have a very important word to say in what flavour a grapevine will have, the true flavour is encased in the genes and the consistency of a cloned crop. Previously, Riccardo Velasco of the Agricultural Institute of San Michele all’Adige, in Italy found hundreds of genes that encode enzymes which produce flavourings and aromatic compounds in pinot noir. His work is already used by farmers who want to make flavours more consistent and those who want to add novelty.
“Winemaking has always been an art. Today it is also a science,” says Uruguayan chemistry professor Francisco Carrau, who has worked on sequencing high-value grapes. “If we can determine through biotechnology the factors that determine a wine’s aroma and color, we can potentially apply that information to create more pleasing and valuable products.”
Much of the same could be achieved for cannabis. Business Insider reports the legal marijuana market could grow to $8 billion by 2020 in the US alone. With current developments in mind, it’s highly likely that the cannabis market will not only grow vertically but also in variety. Perhaps, hundreds of new strains could pop up in the coming years. Scientific cannabis growing is just around the corner.
“The goal is to develop well-defined and highly-reproducible cannabis varieties. This is similar to the wine industry, which depends on defined varieties such as chardonnay or merlot for high value products,” said Jörg Bohlmann, a professor in the Michael Smith Laboratories and faculty of forestry at UBC. “Our genomics work can inform breeders of commercial varieties which genes to pay attention to for specific flavour qualities.”
Next, Bohlmann and colleagues will investigate whether terpene compounds interact in any way with cannabinoid compounds such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that are supposed to confer the medical properties of cannabis.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.