Imagine a reality in which you pop in to your favorite weed dispensary, tell the clerk behind the counter the precise flavor and experience you want, and then sit back while they concoct it. It may sound like Total Recall
or any other number of sci-fi movies but, scientific skill and the lifting of research restrictions allowing, this will be our future. As you read this, geneticists are doing everything they can in an absurdly restricted state to crack the complex genome of marijuana in hopes of providing made-to-order cannabis strains to fit your unique needs. But like any good sci-fi movie, the plot is rife with challenges, dangers, and ethical questions.
The Complexity of the Marijuana Genome
Arguably, the road to the present state of marijuana genetics began in 2011 when geneticist Kevin McKernan, bound by a non-compete oath signed to his former biotech employer, found himself in an Amsterdam hotel trying to isolate the DNA of a sample of the Chemdawg strain. However, the cannabis genome proved to be a more difficult puzzle than initially imagined. In spite of the overwhelming task before him, McKernan was able to painstakingly create a rudimentary sketch of the genome using the DNA sequence specific to the Chemdawg strain. But make no mistake, this was a stick figure sketch when compared to the masterpiece that science required. Stifled by a federal system ranging anywhere from unsupportive to outright hostile toward marijuana research, McKernan had hit the glass ceiling. Rather than filing his findings away, he publicly posted his results for both the Chemdawg and LA Confidential cannabis strains to the Amazon cloud in hopes that a maverick geneticist would swallow the risks in a thirst for answers. Though McKernan’s efforts were respected and even inspiring to many geneticists, the primitive deciphering of the genome only reinforced the idea that analyzing cannabis DNA presented a monster tangle to unravel; one that, at the time, couldn’t warrant the time or energy of prohibition-era geneticists. Also in 2011, a similar effort was made in Canada by biochemist Jonathan Page to produce the genome of Purple Kush but, like McKernan’s results, the experiment only produced an overwhelming amount of fragments that no lab had the time or resources to assemble into valuable information.
Industry Pressure to Crack the Genome
Though the restrictions on marijuana research in the U.S. remain as stubbornly rooted as ever, advances in genome sequencing have made it more affordable (and thus palatable) for curious scientists to consider researching cannabis genetics through any means possible. There’s also the matter of all the money at stake when the gates of prohibition finally give way to federal legalization. Companies want to get a head start now, especially smaller businesses hoping to compete with the inevitable big businesses vying for premium real estate in the Green Rush. You can already download apps that use formulas to strengthen crop yields or use image recognition technology in an attempt to determine the strain of seeds but these are a far cry from what the industry knows it can achieve once a full genome is properly deciphered.
The Bounty Offered by Customizing Cannabis Strains
Cracking the code to the genetics of cannabis offers a bounty of benefits too tempting for scientists and businesses alike to simply ignore until research restrictions are lifted. If science were able to decipher the genetic code of marijuana, the door would be open to control cannabis strains to treat specific ailments and provide specialized therapeutics customized to fit a patient’s unique needs. Even from a recreational perspective, everything from the flavor to the scent to the attributes of the high could be mapped out with precision. Growers already figured out a way to heighten the potency of their strains in recent years. But in the quest for elevated THC levels, growers lost the ability to direct nuanced terpenoids and cannabinoids. Geneticists and marijuana businesses alike are determined to control those terpenoids and cannaboids with scientific precision.
A Dream of a Cannabis Catalogue
Steep Hill Labs
have come at the perplexing puzzle of the cannabis genome from a different avenue, having spent 8 years building up a solid foundation on marijuana analysis. Not only does Steep Hill plumb marijuana samples for THC and cannabidiol content, they also examine cannabinoids and terpenoids to provide the most comprehensive data on specific cannabis strains. But even Steep Hill has yet to crack the marijuana genome at such a level as to create genetically modified designer weed. Speaking to Wired
, one of Steep Hill’s geneticists, Reggie Gaudino, described an ambitious dream to assemble a “database where you can type in what you’re looking for. You’ll either get out the strain that exists that does that or if it doesn’t exist, it’ll tell you what strains you could begin breeding.” Gaudino’s fantasy would require a full identification and understanding of marijuana’s 800 million base pairs, not to mention its 10 chromosomes. The task is made even more daunting by a similarity in genome fragments and repetitive sequences capable of breaking down even the most resolute of geneticists.
Up against the seemingly insurmountable wall that Gaudino’s hypothetical cannabis catalogue highlights, you’d expect the geneticists to simply shrug their shoulders and admit that the grab-bag days of smoking whatever you could get your hands on weren’t so bad. But scientists haven’t completely balked at the challenge and businesses are champing at the bit for a breakthrough. Yet, as companies like Monsanto have shown, playing with genetics can have some disastrous consequences. Where many marijuana companies are looking to the future, too much genetic tampering could instead land them in Jurassic Park
. Since marijuana is still stagnating in its outdated Schedule I classification, U.S. research into its genetics is neither sanctioned nor considered substantiated. However, with the DEA considering re-scheduling marijuana, the door could soon be open for huge corporations and small business alike to take their crack at not just deciphering but harnessing the genetic blueprint of marijuana in hopes of creating cannabis strains. The implications are as exciting as they are terrifying.