GMO Weed: The Future of Bud

Cannabis in an erlenmeyer flask

There’s no reason to be scared of genetically-modified marijuana. It could be the best bud you’ve ever had.

The GMO Era Begins

In 1996, the world was shocked when the news was announced that scientists in Scotland had cloned an animal. Dolly, as she was named, was an exact genetic duplicate of a female sheep.

To some extent, the researchers behind Dolly managed to achieve what no scientists before them had ever accomplished: they demonstrated humankind’s mastery over its own genes.

What Dolly’s birth really represented, however, was humankind’s mastery over our DNA, which is what makes up our genes. DNA is the instruction manual for how our biological processes operate. By birthing Dolly, we showed we can control genetic destiny.

One of the ways we are controlling our futures is by applying the techniques that created Dolly to change the genetic configurations of other living things, including plants.

This is the essence of genetic modification technology, and has led to the creation of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

GMO can be a bit of a dirty word, especially if you’re a devotee of organic food. Many people think GMOs are unhealthy. But, where cannabis is concerned, genetic modification can allow us to improve how marijuana is produced.

Ripe For Improvement

The cannabis plant is a wonder of evolution, but in terms of maximizing the amount of medicinally useful molecules — like THC and CBD — that the plant produces, nature could use some juicing up.

As it stands, the only parts of the cannabis plant that produce psychoactive compounds are the trichomes — small hair-like outgrowths on the surface of female cannabis plants’ flowers.

This means that the vast majority of the plant’s biomass, around 90%, from leaves to stalk to stems — are useless from a commercial perspective.

So, imagine the possibilities if the cannabis plant could somehow be re-engineered so that it could produce those THC-bearing trichomes from root to tip. It would mean more than 90% of the plant could be used  commercially, rather than being sent straight to the compost heap.

A trichome-saturated cannabis plant would also give producers much more bang for their buck, as it could produce more THC and/or CBD without more water, fertilizer or energy.

But the most radical proposal for engineering cannabis is to get rid of the plant altogether. Stay with me here — it ends up making a lot of sense.

Building Blocks for Bud

Because DNA is the universal genetic language that governs cells’ basic functions —  such as the manufacture of proteins, the replication of genetic material and the production of cellular energy — they work the same way in many different organisms.

THC is the end result of a metabolic pathway. This means that a chemical, or combination of chemicals, is acted upon by an enzyme, or series of enzymes.

The starting chemicals are transformed by the enzyme into another chemical. In the case of cannabis, two chemicals in the plant, called geranyl pyrophosphate and olivetol, are combined by an enzyme called THCA synthase to form THC. The THC is then stored in the trichomes on the surface of the plant.

Now, the magic begins.

THCA synthase – the enzyme that synthesizes THC in the cannabis plant — is made out of protein. Because of this, we can determine the genetic sequence that encodes this protein.

This is easy to do, because the entire genetic sequence of the cannabis plant — the cannabis genome — has already been decoded, and this entire set of information is publically available.

Once you determine the genetic sequence that encodes the THCA synthase enzyme, you can use chemicals called restriction enzymes to clip that exact piece of DNA out of the strands of DNA that compose the cannabis genome.

Now, the researcher has a piece of DNA that encodes the THCA synthase enzyme, and nothing else. This chunk of genetic material can then be inserted into whatever type of organism you desire.

The Beast That Is Yeast

When you think of yeast, generally two things come to mind: beer and baking. But yeast represents a lot more than a glass of suds or a fresh-baked loaf of bread.

Yeast is actually a very powerful genetic organism. Yeast cells grow quickly — in a culture solution at room temperature they will double in number every 100 minutes.

Now comes the fun part. Using some chemical tricks, we can take the segment of DNA we just snipped out of cannabis plant — remember, the one that encodes the THCA synthase enzyme — and pop it right into a yeast cell’s DNA.

This means that, as that single yeast cell copies itself and grows exponentially, from one to a sea of billions, it will ceaselessly manufacture the THCA enzyme as if that plant gene were a part of the very fabric of the yeast cell, which in fact it is.

So, if you put the THCA enzyme in a yeast cell, then grow that yeast cell in huge vats, you’ll eventually end up with a lot of THCA enzyme floating around in your vat.

The next step is to extract the enzyme from the solution, filtering out the cellular debris and growth medium. Once this is done, all you really need to do is add geranyl pyrophosphate and olivetolic to your THCA enzyme and voila, you have fully formed THC.

This THC can then be extracted from the growth medium; quality control-checked; packaged and sold at a hefty markup to a ravenous consumer market.

If using yeast cells to churn out cannabis products seems far-fetched, you might be surprised to know it’s actually happening now.

Hyasynth Bio, a company in Montreal, Canada, has developed their own strain of yeast cell that is genetically engineered to churn out cannabinoids.

The yeast cells are grown in giant vessels called bioreactors, each containing thousands of litres of growth medium, which are continually checked to ensure an absence of contamination and a proper growth environment.

Then, the yeast cells are disassembled; the yeast particles filtered out and the cannabinoids extracted from that solution.

Frankenplants for Fun and Profit

There’s also another approach, one that may not sit well with purists. It involves making “Frankenplants.” But the future of genetically altered plants need not stoke horrific associations.

If anything, GMO weed could be the plant of the future, for a number of reasons.

GMO technology has gotten a very bad rap over the past couple of decades. Initial pushes to roll out GMO food crop staples — things like tomatoes, wheat and corn — that were engineered to be pest resistant were met with a huge amount of opposition, organized by environmental groups who had little knowledge of what they were protesting.

The world was shocked in the late 1990s and early 2000s when images flashed across TV screens around the world of protestors ripping up genetically-modified crops in test fields dressed in biohazard suits.

Many of these protests took place in the UK, which remains a hotbed of anti-GMO sentiment, led by organizations like Greenpeace UK, which is committed to boycotting genetic plant technologies.

As GMO crops began to be rolled out across North America, European activists tried to convince people on the other side of the pond that crops that had been genetically engineered were “Frankenfoods” and were to be avoided at all costs. They were met with some success.

But North Americans generally proved to be more tolerant to the idea that plants could be genetically modified and also safe to consume. That seems to be why countries in the western hemisphere seem to be leading the charge when it comes to GMO plant technologies, including cannabis.

There are several ways genetic modification technologies could enhance the experience of consuming your favourite strain of bud.

First, the cannabis plant could be engineered such that a tissue-specific promoter is added in front of the gene that produces the THCA enzyme.

A promoter is a small segment of DNA that is associated with a particular gene. It contains instructions that activate the gene it controls.

The promoter attached to the THCA gene would tell the gene to “turn on” in every part of the plant, such as its leaves, stem, etc. This means, in turn, the THCA enzyme would thus be active in every part of the cannabis plant, not just the buds.

Thus, every part of the plant — including the parts you’d never think of consuming — would literally be dripping in THC, which could increase yields up to 90% for growers and producers of industrial cannabis.

With genetic modification technology, it seems the questionable environmental cost of large-scale cannabis production can be effectively mitigated.

The cannabis plant could also be engineered to require less water, or to express more photosynthetic pigments so it requires less energy to grow relative to a plant found in the wild.

But GMO technology doesn’t just have the capability to dramatically increase yields of THC, CBD and other valuable compounds.

Because most plants grow based on DNA templates that are more or less interchangeable, traits from virtually any number of plant species could be spliced into the cannabis genome.

For example: imagine a Blueberry Kush strain that contains actual blueberry flavour compounds from the blueberry plant? Or a Unicorn sativa: a plant festooned with candy-coloured, multi-hued swirls of buds containing pigments from across the plant kingdom?

The future of cannabis is waiting to be engineered.

Cruising Ahead With CRISPR

One of the ways this engineering is soon to happen will involve the CRISPR/Cas9 system. This genetic technology has gotten a lot of press recently, and for good reason.

CRISPR/Cas9 allows researchers to edit genomes from scratch with an incredible level of precision, which means certain traits can be custom-engineered.

In the most dystopian case, this means editing a human egg cell so the baby is sure to have blue eyes.

In a less ominous context, CRISPR/Cas9 could allow researchers to tweak the cannabis genome to get the plant to produce substances we would never be able to imagine, like fish proteins to protect against frost bite and citrus molecules that smell like a spring breeze…

Lest that sound like science fiction, it’s already happening: Canopy Growth Corporation, one of the world’s largest legal cannabis companies, paid US$300 million to acquire Colorado-based Ebbu, a company that specializes in fiddling with cannabis genes using the CRISPR/Cas9 system.

As the technology becomes more and more widespread outside of niche applications in the biological sciences, expect more companies to crop up that use CRISPR/Cas9 to drive product development in the cannabis space.

No matter the technology used, or no matter what you think of GMOs, genetic manipulation of the cannabis plant is set to be a huge area of interest now and into the future. The tools of today’s biological scientists make those used by Dolly’s engineers look positively paleolithic.

The best advice for thinking about the future of GMO weed: expect the unexpected.

About the author
Paul Tadich

Paul Tadich is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster who specializes in science, health and technology. He has written for virtually every major Canadian publication and his work has appeared around the world. His lifelong passion for the biological sciences, especially genetics, led him to working as a research assistant in one of North America’s top cancer research labs where he participated in important experiments that outlined how cancer cells communicate with each other via chemical signals — resulting in his debut as a published scientific author. Paul's deep understanding of biological mechanisms underscores his appreciation for the myriad benefits cannabis has to offer.

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