George Weiblen, a plant biologist, was once ridiculed and referred to as the ‘professor of pot.’ However, had he imagined how the industry would be a few decades later, he would have welcomed all the ridicules with a smile.
Jahan Marcu is a biochemist who has found a very ‘satisfying’ career working to assure the safety of medical marijuana.
Adam Kavalier, a phytochemist working in the cannabis industry, describes it as a very rewarding experience to see patients leaving opioids and embracing cannabis products.
These are but a few examples of the opportunities for biology roles in the industry, and as the demand for cannabis continues to grow, the need for STEM experience and knowledge grows with it.
How Biology Fits in the Cannabis Industry
Biology is the study of living organisms and the ecology around them. This includes the study of plants with the areas of focus being horticulture, botany, environmental quality, genetics, and anything else which might help synthesize the next unique cannabis strain.
Biology also includes the study of the human body, physiology, anatomy, and pathology. The knowledge gained helps explain how cannabis interacts with the human body, bringing about the various health benefits.
Biology not only helps produce high-quality cannabis crops and products, but it also gives insight into the medicinal application of cannabis, as well as the science behind its intoxicating qualities.
Biology and Cannabis Careers
According to a report by New Frontier Data, the industry is expected to employ at least 300,000 people by 2020. Although the majority of the jobs will require little skill, there are many positions which will require significant experience and scientific knowledge.
Scientists and biologists are in the middle of exploring uncharted territory: the cannabis genome.
Unlike other plants, very little is known on the genetic makeup of the cannabis plant. However, this narration is changing since for the last decade; biologists have been working on producing a unique and high-quality cannabis genome.
According to Mowgli Holmes, CEO, and co-founder of Phylos Bioscience, people rarely have an idea on what they are smoking or ingesting. He believes that DNA sequencing will help to uniquely identify a plant. This will make it possible for growers to know exactly what they are selling to consumers. According to Holmes, their company has a system where growers can send their plant samples for genetic analysis.
To analyze a strain’s DNA, biologists grind cannabis and put it into a container. They then add a lysis solution, which helps release genomic DNA from the cannabis plant. At this stage, several other solutions are used to separate the different molecules in the plant cells. From there, DNA can be isolated for sequencing.
He further states that, apart from learning which plants can benefit growers more, a comprehensive cannabis genome advances our knowledge on the health benefits of cannabis. Once we understand how the DNA produces different beneficial compounds, we can breed cannabis for more specific usage.
Some scientists and biologists focus specifically on improving the growth rate of the cannabis plant. In this story from Forbes, Sierra McDonald talks about how she studied horticulture at the University of Georgia and turned her education into a lucrative cannabis cultivation career in Arizona. Likewise, her co-worker, Kati Lindholm, has a degree in biology from Central Florida University, as well as, a masters in plant production science from the University of Helsinki.
Although often grown for medicinal purposes, cannabis and hemp are still agricultural crops which require skilled, educated cultivators to produce the best quality plants possible. Just as you’d want a qualified, experienced veterinarian to treat livestock, cannabis and hemp need professionals on staff to monitor and manage the plants.
According to Jeff Yagielo of Hemp Staff, in a CNN article from 2017, talking about salary and growth potential he stated, “Starting salary for growers is typically $40,000 a year for horticulturalists or $60,000 for botanists, but pay can grow to $120,000 within three years.”
Earlier this year, scientists at UC Berkeley surprised everyone when for the first time created cannabis products in a lab setup, instead of harvesting them from a plant.
Using what is popularly referred to as synthetic biology, the scientists genetically engineered yeast to produce a key marijuana component that is a precursor to the popular cannabinoids; CBD and THC. They then used these precursors to make the compounds.
In a report published in the journal Nature, the biologists explain how these cannabinoids can be made in the lab. If this method can scale, it will pave the way for making cannabis’s beneficial compounds faster and at a much lower cost.
Cannabis botanists test, research, and educate potential growers about the evolving cannabis strains as well as their compatibility to different soil conditions. In fact, many biologists continue to believe we don’t know how many cannabis species there are since they have all been classified as one species based on the findings of Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist who lived in the 18th century.
It takes about four years to get a Bachelor of Science in Botany, which addresses soil types, field botany, and plant genetics. From there, the graduate can get more training for areas of research such as the cannabis genome.
The work of Biologists in the cannabis sector can never be overlooked. As the demand for cannabis products continues to grow, researchers and biologists will keep looking for ways to come up with hybrid cannabis strains with more desirable qualities.