Earlier this year, the eye-catching headline ‘Marijuana Contains “Alien DNA” from Outside of Our Solar System, NASA Confirms’ made its way around the world wide web thousands of times before the truth could even put its pants on.
The article, clearly a hoax from the fine folks over at IFLscience.com, was intended to exploit the clickbaity nature of social media where many people never make it past the headline before making up their mind on the subject. . . and it worked.
But the fact that so many people are so mystified by the layers of healing and new discovery within the cannabis plant really speaks to the larger issue that for far too long cannabis has been shunned by governments and societies, making real lab-grade research nothing more than a pipe dream for willing researchers.
The recent wave of medical and recreational cannabis reform in the U.S. has created more opportunity for research on the plant, and those efforts have been boosted greatly with Canada coming online with their own nationwide cannabis legalization just last month.
As these studies begin to reverse engineer the plant, the mystery surrounding it begins to unravel.
In a report released to the public yesterday, researchers from the University of Toronto and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have announced a groundbreaking discovery that will likely have a profound impact on the future of cannabis.
Back in June of this year, Rolling Stone ran a feature length article on the efforts, the concerns, and the difficulties, behind completely mapping the genome of the cannabis plant. The plant’s genome was sequenced back in 2011, but those studies failed to isolate the specific genes responsible for creating THC and CBD.
Compared to many other common plants, the cannabis genome is relatively small. In fact, it is something like 40x smaller than that of a pine tree.
The difficulty lies in the fact that the cannabis plant is riddled with what researchers call “Junk DNA”.
Over thousands of years of survival in some harsh climates, the cannabis plant was inundated by viruses and underwent constant slight genetic mutations to combat these and adapt to its environment to increase its own virility. This basic evolutionary process can be witnessed over time in all living organisms, and just like in humans, mistakes get made often.
In this ongoing chain of mistake-correction-mistake-correction, evolution usually shines and survival of the fittest typically dictates that the organism is stronger from the process.
For years, this soup of viruses and errors has clouded the lens of researchers seeking the elusive THC and CBD generating genes, but yesterday’s report reveals that it may have been the perfect environment to promote the development of the THC and CBD genes to begin with.
Simply put, THC and CBD as we now know them quite literally “sprung to life” because the cannabis plant was forced to endure and overcome thousands of years of invasion and colonization of ancient viruses.
The genetic map we have now shows that while cannabis and hemp belong to the same species cannabis Sativa, they clearly evolved as vastly different strains with almost polar opposite chemical makeups when it comes to THC:CBD ratios.
This evolution was originally spurred environmentally, by natural selection. But once humans discovered the plant, we too began our own selection process by propagating plants with favorable traits (flavor, aroma, effects) and discarding those that lacked those traits.
Unfortunately, for thousands of years, CBD-heavy strains probably didn’t make the cut with most cultivators who were seeking the psychoactive effects provided by THC, not CBD. By promoting THC laden strains over the CBD rich counterparts harvest after harvest, generation after generation, there is little doubt that we humans have genetically modified the cannabis plant as much as any environmental impact.
Of course, now we know the many medicinal benefits to CBD, particularly in children who may not need the healing but psychoactive effects of THC. Unfortunately, we now have a severe lack of supply of cannabis-derived CBD as cultivators utilize their limited space on strains that appeal to the masses.
But by isolating the genes responsible for creating both THC and CBD, as these researchers have apparently done, cultivators will be able to accurately target one or the other (or a specific ratio of each) in their crop production taking the guesswork out of pheno hunting once and for all.
Currently, the best that we have is the tireless work put in by Mowgli Holmes and his team at Phylos Bioscience. Their strain “Galaxy”, launched in 2016, provides a deep field look at the DNA sequencing of thousands of different strains, by far the largest collection of individual cannabis strain data available.
Grassroots cannabis connoisseurs are concerned that this technology will enable large corporations to slap patents on certain strains and claim them as their own. The endgame for Big Pharma is to isolate every compound found in cannabis, then discover a way to recreate it in a lab environment so that, eventually, there will be no need for the messy, smelly, plant itself.
The sad fact is, that is already happening and it is projects like Phylos Bioscience that are fighting back against this dangerous practice.
In an effort called The Open Cannabis Project, over 1,000 cannabis strains that have been sequenced by Phylos Bioscience are archived for posterity so that there is a public record of their genetic makeup. Then, if some big corp tries to patent the properties of that strain, they should be denied due to the fact that it already exists and therefore is not a “new” discovery.
Yesterday’s report certainly revealed a new discovery – one that will lead to a much more informed process from seed to sale. Growers will be able to hone in on specific traits with more accuracy and consumers will be able to more easily identify products that appeal specifically to them.
As we know, there is more to cannabis than just THC and CBD but with this new understanding of those two major building blocks, researchers will certainly shift their focus to the other supporting cannabinoids and the highly sought after terpenes that round out the full entourage effect of the miraculous, and now slightly less mysterious, cannabis plant.