CU-Boulder prof pursues deepest-ever exploration of the cannabis genome
Saturday, 27 December 2014
Among a vast collection of seeds housed in a nondescript industrial building on the outskirts of Lafayette resides what could be the key to the deepest and most detailed understanding yet of cannabis — information that may unleash nearly limitless potential for a plant that spans the worlds of medicine, textiles, food, fuel and fun.
Select DNA samples from that collection, representing a wide range of cannabis types from all over the world, will make their way to a lab at the University of Colorado to be analyzed, sequenced and mapped at a level never before attempted.
It's called the Cannabis Genomic Research Initiative and it's being led by 37-year-old Nolan Kane, an assistant professor with CU's department of ecology and evolutionary biology. The 18-month initiative, based largely if not entirely in Boulder County, should provide hemp farmers and marijuana growers worldwide with a genomic blueprint allowing them to breed high-value specimens far more efficiently than they can now.
"It's an interesting and unique genus that is really understudied," said Kane, sitting in his office in Ramaley biology building on the CU campus last week. "Colorado is one of the best places to do this because we have the industry here and we have a lot of expertise. And it's easier to do the research because we have dealt with many of the legal issues."
Until Colorado voters legalized pot consumption by adults and hemp growing for industrial purposes in 2012, the legal cloud hanging over the plant deterred scientists from undertaking extensive research with it, Kane said.
But just last week, President Obama signed into law a nearly $1 trillion farm bill containing a stipulation, pushed by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, that allows universities in the nine states that permit industrial hemp cultivation to conduct research into the plant without jeopardizing their federal funding.
Though Kane's cannabis initiative will encompass plant types that don't fall under the federal exemption, he said acknowledgment from Washington, D.C. that good can come from research like his is gratifying.
"Being able to work on those industrial and medicinal strains without restriction will be very helpful," he said.
Ben Holmes, owner of Lafayette-based Centennial Seeds, will be growing from his collection of 300 seed lines the cannabis plants that underpin Kane's efforts. The first seeds went into the ground last week.
Given the legal and creative climate that has recently developed around the plant in Colorado, Holmes said, Boulder County is the perfect place to launch an ambitious project like this.
"Everything comes together - the legality, some guy with a seed collection, and a world-class genomics professor happening to land at CU," he said.
Down to the chromosomes
Kane came to CU's department of ecology and evolutionary biology in August from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he did research into the genetic structure of sunflowers, chocolate and mustard. But he said it took a post-doc student in his lab at CU to convince him that the next great specimen to unmask genetically is cannabis.
Daniela Vergara said she got the idea for mapping the plant while working on her doctoral thesis at the University of Indiana. She thought what was being examined in terms of the genetics of sunflower strains could as easily apply to cannabis.
"I thought that these questions were cool to ask in cannabis," Vergara said. "There was nothing that had been done."
In fact, genetic work on cannabis has been going on for a while but not at the intricate level Kane and Vergara are aiming for. In 2011, a Massachusetts company and a Canadian research team announced that they had sequenced the genome of the cannabis sativa plant.
But Kane said that work, while providing a "strong foundation" for future research, essentially broke down cannabis into unconnected chunks of genetic data that lack meaning in many ways. He likened the sequencing efforts to having the complete pages or chapters of a novel but in completely the wrong order.
"They got it down to 60,000 pieces — we want to get it down to the 10 pairs of chromosomes," Kane said. "We want to know where the genes are on the chromosomes."
Heather Despres, lab director with CannLabs in Denver, said that kind of analysis will help forge a better understanding of the plant's active ingredients — the cannabinoids - which are responsible for providing marijuana's medicinal benefits and recreational high. CannLabs, which offers a wide array of testing services for cannabis, will be providing analysis for the initiative.
"What Nolan is trying to do is figure out what all those chunks mean," Despres said. "It's a giant million-piece puzzle and all the pieces are microscopic. They're going to start putting the pieces together and from that data, you can start creating custom plants that produce more medicine or other traits that are desirable."
But genetic modification it isn't, everyone involved in the initiative is quick to say.
"Their work is not bringing outside genes into the plant but working with the genes that are already there in the plant," Despres said.
Holmes said the initiative will simply be accelerating and perfecting the art of selective breeding, a practice that has been around for centuries.
"We're not interested in GMO work," he said. "We're interested in modern genomic resources that would enhance traditional breeding methods. The ability to assay for specific genes within the crop is the equivalent of super powers for a breeder."
'Shortens the time to market'
The project starts with Holmes planting two parent cannabis plants — in this case an Afghan Kush variety that is heavy on psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and a northern Italian variety of fiber-heavy industrial hemp devoid of mind-altering compounds — and crossbreeding them.
Vergara, the post-doc student in Kane's lab, said it is important that the source plants be as disparate as possible so that as many distinct traits can be captured early.
"We are going to take different parents — a parent that is tall and a parent that flowers early — and get their baby plant," Vergara said.
The offspring plant's leaf tip will then be sampled for DNA at Holmes' makeshift lab in Lafayette and sent to Kane's lab as nothing more than liquid in a tube. That genetic data will be sequenced and entered into a computer as a starting point for the genomic map. Other seed lines in Holmes' collection, which he keeps in neatly labeled canisters, will then be introduced into the project and their genetic information overlaid onto the map.
"We'll cover every single type (of cannabis)," said Holmes, who keeps a map in his lobby decorated with thumbtacks marking locations around the world where he has obtained different seed lines. "I'm providing a collection that he could not collect today."
The end result will be a map that more thoroughly reflects the diversity of the cannabis plant and allows for easy testing of desired traits — like medicinal cannabidiol, or CBD, or energy-containing biomass -— and development of new strains faster than before. Holmes said yield times could drop to as little as 20 days from the typical 140 days.
"It shortens the time to market for new seed varieties," he said.
The map's precision genetics should also make cannabis cultivation less of the hit-and-miss affair it is today, Kane said, saving growers time and money.
"Instead of growing thousands of plants to maturity, you're only growing a handful," he said. "It's a more efficient way of selecting for the plants you want."
CU could benefit from project
The potential financial and reputational benefits from a widely recognized and heavily used genomic cannabis map are not insubstantial. Just last year, the Legislative Council of the Colorado General Assembly estimated that the combined sales of wholesale and retail marijuana in the state could amount to $578 million a year.
That amount is sure to skyrocket when hemp sales are added to the tally. Registration for hemp farmers looking to grow the plant in Colorado begins March 1.
Bob Sievers, a chemistry professor at CU for the past 38 years who calls Kane one of the "most promising researchers in this field," said his colleague and the university stand to benefit from his work if is able to figure out how to license certain aspects or technologies that come out of it.
Further easing of marijuana laws, like the hemp exemptions passed as part of the farm bill last week, will lead to more and better research projects and scientific discoveries, he said.
"It is tremendously important to the freedom of academic researchers in Colorado and the eight other states that have legalized hemp," Sievers said.
The number one challenge to making the Cannabis Genomic Research Initiative successful is funding. Kane said he needs a few hundred thousand dollars for the first 18 months of the project. He has begun to tap public and private sources for the money.
But more funding will be needed if Kane wants to expand the initiative from 150 seed lines to 300.
Mason Tvert, who led the charge on Colorado's Amendment 64 pot legalization measure in 2012 and now works as director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, said it's not surprising to him that the state has become a magnet for endeavors as ambitious as the Cannabis Genomic Research Project.
He credits Colorado's fast-evolving attitude toward the industry and the interest in recent years in looking at the plant's beneficial properties rather than its potential for harm.
"For too long, our failed marijuana laws have hindered research into this product," Tvert said. "Now that Colorado is moving forward with a more sensible policy, it's not surprising we're seeing the state as a home base for new research."