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Can Cannabis Genetics Improve the Consumer Experience?

cannabis genetics

Anna Schwabe PhD is a cannabis genetics researcher focusing on population genetics. She currently works with 420 Organics, a recently licensed family-run hemp and cannabis farm in New Jersey that grows organically and with aquaponics. In this interview she shares her in-depth knowledge on cannabis genetics, how the science applies to the emerging industry, and the best ways to employ this practice for the benefit of growers and consumers, both medical and recreational.

QUESTION: What are cannabis genetics, and how are they identified?

There are two ways that people use the term cannabis genetics, and in the cannabis industry, it’s typically used to describe different varieties, seeds or clones. But that’s not how I use the term because I’m a geneticist, so to me, cannabis genetics means modes of inheritance, inherited traits and the different kind of traits that you can breed for such as yield, cannabinoid and terpene content, and color, which are called the transmission genetics. There’s also molecular genetics, looking at the DNA genome, genes, chromosomes, which are the genetic components of the organism.

And there’s population genetics, my specialty, which means looking at the DNA genome but using that information to investigate relationships amongst different groups. This information can be used to compare different populations around the world, so let’s say Chinese versus North American cannabis but also intra-group relationships, such as hemp versus marijuana, wild versus cultivated, sativa versus indica, and it’s also possible to compare strains, for example, Chem Dog versus Blue Dream. So that’s what I’m referring to when I refer to cannabis genetics.

QUESTION: How did you get into cannabis research?

I’d always had an interest in cannabis, and even tried to grow plants in my parent’s basement when I was a teenager – my dad caught me, and that was the end of that. As an undergraduate, I studied a variety of drug and addiction modules as part of my Anatomy and Physiology degree, but I had no intention of entering the world of plants. However, due to a few different factors, I was forced to switch my major to Cellular and Molecular Biology and to take a Plant Systematics class – you know, one of those small decisions that became life changing.

In order to graduate, I needed lab time, and ended up working with a professor named Mit McGlaughlin who at the time was running an experiment on genes. McGlaughlin’s lab specializes in the study of rare plants for conservation. I went onto to do a Masters, also working with Mit, and was the first student to graduate from his lab at the University of Northern Colorado. I went on to work for the Denver Botanic Gardens, managing their genetics lab. But I first became interested in cannabis research in 2015 when Colorado legalized adult-use cannabis. At the time, one of the researchers in my lab mentioned that when he bought Blue Dream from different dispensaries, it wasn’t the same.

I knew most plants were bred through cloning as opposed to seeds, so why would there be a difference in appearance or effect? Was it the case that the same strains from different dispensaries were genetically identical or highly similar in the same way you’d find in seed lots? With my skills in population genetics, this was a question I could answer. So I approached Mit again, and proposed this research as part of a doctorate program. It took some negotiation but eventually he agreed. And I ended running four big experiments along side a module of Biology Education to meet the university’s credit score system. I completed my PhD in four years. It was a great experience.

QUESTION: And what did you find?

I did the experiment from a consumer perspective, meaning I didn’t let the dispensaries know I was a scientist conducting a study because I didn’t want them to change the product. I brought the strains back to the lab to investigate if they were the same, which is a straight yes or no question. In the end, I collected 30 different strains from 3 different states, and of those strains, 27 had at least one genetic outlier. And the 3 strains that were the same, there was genetic variance too. So, if you expand that out to a larger sample, it means there’s a lot of variety, and it’s likely that environmental factors play a role. It’s the same with identical twins. Even if they have an identical genetic code, they don’t turn out exactly the same as adults.

By the same token, you can find two people who are not at all related and yet they look very similar. In the case of dispensaries, it’s possible that strains got mixed up or mislabeled or even re-labeled to sell it faster. When that happens there’s no way to go back to the dispensary, and say, “this isn’t Blue Dream,” because of course, they’ll say, “how do you know?” The problem is there’s no one policing this. And it may just be an honest mistake on the part of the dispensary because the strain looks so similar to another strain, they’re sure that’s what it is. To be honest, this problem is not unique to cannabis. It happens across the food industry, one example is the fish industry where studies find sampled fish is not the same as advertised. But again, there’s no way for consumers to police this.

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QUESTION: Is there a way to police this?

To be honest, this problem doesn’t just affect consumers, and there’s really no way to know at what point in the supply chain thing went awry. It can all the way up to the person supplying the seed or the clone. Unless you get it from the breeder who bred that specific strain, there’s no way to tell what you’re getting, and it’s the same for growers, dispensary owners and consumers. Now, when people ask me, how do I know what I’m buying, I say, you don’t. Instead, I tell consumers that if you find something you like, go back to the dispensary and buy it in bulk because the chances of you finding it again are slim.

QUESTION: What causes these genetic differences?

A range of different factors can be at play, for example, in-breeding depression or accumulation of mutations. When you have a mother plant, and you cut clones, all those clones become unique individuals subject to their own stresses and environment. The mother can also change because she’s stressed by the cutting, and once she develops stress markers, she can pass those onto her clones. These are called epigenetic changes, where they epigenome is changing but the DNA is not. The plant can’t get up and move, so it adapts its epigenome to survive, and it passed on those changes to its offspring.

QUESTION: So really, every plant is individual?

Yes. If someone gave each of us a clone from the same plant, and each of grew it in our homes, those plants would turn out very different because we’ll treat those plants differently, different soil, nutrients, weather conditions, and so on. One way to combat this problem is to develop a set of standard growing conditions which includes a specific soil, light, nutrient regime, and so on. That way we can say a given plant should turn out in a given way, and if there are deviations from the regime, results will vary. That would enable growers and dispensaries to say, a given plant was or was not grown under the standard conditions, and as a result, the plant may be better, for example have more cannabinoids or terpenes. In this way, growers can still put their art into the process, and consumers have benchmark.

QUESTION: How important is it for consumers to be aware of this situation?

This becomes really important when talking about medicinal cannabis, as patients need a consistent quality. So if they can search for the strain grown under standard conditions, it gives them some guarantee that it will work for them. But to be fair, we deal with this same problem in other industries. In the wine industry for example we know what a Chardonnay is supposed to look and taste like but individual wineries will produce their wine in a different way, growing the grapes under certain conditions. Plus, we know there are excellent wineries out there, and not so good ones too. So, we know how to do this, and the same set up applies to the cannabis industry. And consumers know how to get around it. One good way is to find a favorite grower. 

QUESTION: Do Indica and Sativa classifications add to the confusion?

Yes and no. Indica and sativa describe growth morphologies as well as a set of effects and those two things are not correlated in any way. For the consumer, all we’re taking about is a type of an effect. But no consumer is going to know what the plant looks like, so in that regard it doesn’t matter at all. That’s for scientists to figure out, and it’s driving us crazy because none of us can agree on anything. I think of indica and sativa as different categories, in the same way I think about beer and wine. Some people like beer, some like wine, and they have an expectation of its effect.

Some people, like me, can’t drink beer at all because it puts them to sleep. But not everybody has that experience. And the same is true of cannabis. I know people who say, sativa has the opposite effect on me, it puts me to sleep, or I start cleaning when I consume indica. Everyone has their own unique chemistry, which means the same plant will interact with them in different ways. We can describe the effects of these plants in a general way but it’s important to let people experiment and make their own decisions based on their preferences.

QUESTION: Can genetics testing offer consumers a better experience?

Not really. Again, it would be more important to test the genetics of the consumer, the same way we do with drugs, but that’s expensive. In terms of scientific discovery, we don’t have a clear genetics split on indica and sativa but we can’t expect to see such a clear differentiation within a species. There are examples of species that are only differentiated by six regions in the genome but are completely different – I’m thinking of a bird. The point is small changes in the genome create big differences. There are 800 million base pairs in the cannabis genome so we haven’t looked at them all, and of the ones we are looking at, such as a cannabinoids and terpenes, we’re only researching a handful.

We’re looking at 15 cannabinoids and 35 terpenes, but there are more than 120 cannabinoids and terpenes each. Also, abundance does not equate to potency. There are some compounds that are very potent that are only found in small amounts, an example is THCP, which is 30 times more potent than THC. So there could be compounds in tiny quantities that we’re not even testing for that are driving these indica and sativa effects. It’s a very bold statement to say, there’s no difference between indica and sativa because we just don’t know yet. We only found THCP in 2021, and more recently we discovered that the compound responsible for the smell of skunk is not a terpene but a thiol called 321MBT.

QUESTION: When more scientific research comes out, do you see cannabis as a gateway for personalized medicine?

Cannabis is an incredibly complex plant. I have a friend with brain damage who was having all sorts of problems and he found a strain that helped him, so he began breeding for it. He bred generations of this clone, arriving at a strain that really helped him, but it was an odd strain with hardly any THC in it. But again, we’re not testing for every compound so we’ve no idea what each plant has in it. Even if we have all the genetic information it doesn’t mean that the plant will express it. I think that whole plant medicine is always better rather than individual components, and I know there are companies out there working on specific formulations for specific conditions. But it doesn’t matter what drug a patient is taking, there’s typically a trial and error process involved to find the correct dosage for that patient. The same is true for cannabis. Everyone has to figure out the dose that works best for them.

This interviewed has been condensed and edited.

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About the author

Natasha Kerry Smith