CRISPR Cannabis Unlocking Genetic Codes

by | Dec 10, 2021

Detroiter Karhlyle Fletcher is the host of High Lit, a cannabis research and classic literature podcast featuring leading voices and independent music. In addition to years in written and video cannabis journalism, he is also a traditional author.

While cloning is an ancient and effective practice, it is not standard across the agricultural industry. Instead, farmers use stable seeds or seeds that grow predictably and uniformly. Many farmers are keen on developing similar seeds for hemp and medical cannabis; however, the process may require using CRISPR-Cas9 technology.

Can We Use CRISPR for Better Cannabis?

As CanBreed has already gotten approval to use CRISPR technology commercially for years, yes, CRISPR cannabis is here. In 2020, CanBreed reported they modified a cannabis gene to make the plant resistant to powdery mildew. This year the company obtained a breeding and growing license for cannabis in California.

For those unfamiliar, CRISPR is a gene-editing tool. Through the use of RNA and an enzyme, Cas9, CRISPR targets specific strands of DNA for removal. It allows the user to alter DNA, controlling what attributes the organism expresses. In a human child, this could affect eye color or a variety of diseases, and in cannabis plants, it could affect protein expression or feminization. Either way, no matter the organism edited, having the ability to make DNA consistent across several organisms or seeds allows for genetic uniformity without cloning.

In sum, rather than having to remove a selection from a host and then create a new cannabis plant from that, CRISPR technology allows for uniform seeds which develop into uniform plants. An advantage here stems from the fact that the genetics of traditional cannabis clones vary throughout the mother's life cycle. As the mother plant ages, the clippings she produces will not be uniform. Those taken from the beginning of her life cycle will be noticeably different from those taken at the end.

Additionally, farmers dedicate about 20% of the available farming space of average cannabis grows to produce clones. Of these clones, the variation between them can be dramatic. For hemp farmers in states without lenient THC limits, variations in THC among clones can ruin their entire harvest. So, to save room, maintain consistent yields, and stay within legal means, CRISPR seeds are the path for the future of the cannabis industry.

How is CRISPR Technology Used?

CanBreed starts with two ideal parent crops and crossbreeds them until they have a desired F1 seed or first-generation seed. Once they have achieved the desired seeds, they use CRISPR technology to edit the genetics of the seeds. This process results in stable seeds, as is the standard for most crops, including the tomato. 

Stable seeds are referred to as such because they grow, well, stably. Each plant grown from stable seeds should have a nearly identical shape, genetics, and yield. Such practices allow scientists to create cultivars that are resistant and robust.

Problems may arise from stable seeds similar to those faced when over-inbreeding cannabis crops. For example, having identical genetics is ideal for preventing certain infections. This benefit is valid until a mutation occurs, and then it can be horrible to have identical plants with no resistance to a novel threat. Perhaps continuing to edit the seeds will address this issue, but the arms race in antibacterials shows no signs of slowing down.

Is There Serious Competition in the Field? 

As with anything capitalistic, there's an impressive amount of competition to create CRISPR cannabis. Ebbu, a company now owned by Canopy Growth, specializes in creating consistent cannabis experiences. One of the innovations they utilize is water-soluble cannabinoids. Another is CRISPR genome editing, which allows the creation of incredibly potent hemp cultivars.

A high-producing CBG hemp cultivar is an example of something which may address bottlenecks in the cannabis industry. Specific cannabinoids are difficult to source as they aren't consistently available in high quantities. Through genetic editing, encouraging superior yields of these compounds can address the issue.

Ebbu explained this process by comparing it to traffic. By shutting down certain paths of travel then the cannabis plant would reroute the compounds somewhere else, resulting in different compounds being made. For example, by reducing the production of compounds needed to create THC or CBD, other cannabinoids will become more prominent in the plant due to the new material availability.

Keep in mind that CRISPR technology has only been commercially available since 2012, and so it will take a while for all implementations of it to hit the market. However, the potential for innovation and market stabilization through technology is thrilling.

Without standardization and regulation, the cannabis industry can't be serious. Thus, state legislation has had to become more and more understanding of the risks and testing needs for the cannabis industry. Seed-to-sale tracking is one major innovation. However, that same technology paired with stable seeds or CRISPR cannabis could be a game-changer. Rather than representing an evil corporate option, these technologies could be what makes cannabis a consistent, affordable, and powerful alternative pharmaceutical.

Are There Alternative Methods? 

A no less futuristic alternative to genetic editing is growing cannabis compounds in a bioreactor. BioHarvest gets 17 harvests a year from their technology, which produces no cannabis. Instead, they create cannabinoids and other key compounds by creating plant cells. The results are controllable, consistent, and reliable yields of full-spectrum cannabis-free cannabis compounds.

This process does not include genetic editing but produces similarly sterile and controllable results. Either stable seeds, CRISPR cannabis, or lab-grown cannabis compounds are likely to be the future of pharmaceutical cannabis.