Marijuana is slowly gaining public and legal acceptance, but there’s still a lot to be learned about the plant. With that in mind, researchers from the University of California Davis have started a project to map the cannabis genome.


Image credits Wally Crawfish.

Hemp and marijuana are two different species, but they’re both strains of the cannabis (Cannabis sativa) plant. The main difference between the two is that marijuana has higher levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the substance that gets you ‘high’. Both species have a long history of human selective breeding, with marijuana getting a lot more of attention from farmers and breeders in recent times, due to the plant’s high market value.

Parts of the cannabis genome have been studied in the past, too, and now researchers from UC Davis have set out to map it out in its entirety, keeping an eye out for portions of the genome that confer it’s medicinal and nutritional value.

“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.”

Instead, Vaught believes cannabis could be the next big commercial crop. It has potential in the field of medicine, pharmaceuticals, health supplements such as CBD oil, or nutritional products like hemp-derived protein powders. However, given that most work on cannabinoids was performed (probably domestically) and with the goal of increasing their THC content, growing it as easily and profitably as corn can be challenging.

Open source genome

This is where the UC Davis team steps in. Led by assistant professor in the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis Dario Cantu, they have previously mapped the genomes of the arabica coffee bean and the cabernet sauvignon grape, so they should not lack for experience in tackling that of the hemp plant.

“We have successfully applied cutting-edge DNA sequencing technologies and computational approaches to study challenging genomes of diverse crops and associated microorganisms,” said Dario Cantu.

“We are now excited to have the opportunity to study the genome of hemp. Decoding the genome will allow us to gain new insight into the genetic bases of complex pathways of secondary metabolism in plants.”

Because they’re both cannabis plants, the underlying genome information will be broadly applicable. As a public university, UC Davis will make all the findings open to the public, meaning breeders of all kinds of cannabis will benefit from the research. Using this database, breeders will be able to isolate new varieties of cannabis or make existing ones better able to withstand different stressors, like pests or drought, or foster other desirable traits — “a big step forward and consistent with our public mission,” according to UC Davis spokesperson Dan Flynn.

There’s another benefit to be had from this research: right now research into cannabis is slow at best. Since it’s listed as a Schedule I drug at the federal level, researchers need to get approval from the Drug Enforcement Agency to work with the plant. Until regulation for this plant relaxes or goes away completely, having its full genome at hand would be a good way to work around that issue.