Plants and Animals

Scientists Have Studied the Genome of Cannabis Plants to Identify Which Genes Cause Which Flavors

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Various strains of cannabis plants have skunky, lemony, or earthy flavors. In an important step for the budding legal cannabis industry, UBC scientists have looked over the genome of cannabis plants to identify the genes that cause the flavors.

Jörg Bohlmann, a professor in the faculty of forestry at UBC and the Michael Smith Laboratories explained that the aim of the research is to develop highly reproducible and well-defined cannabis varieties. This can be compared to the wine industry where high value products depend on defined varieties such as merlot or chardonnay. Breeders of commercial varieties of cannabis can use the genomics work to understand which genes to pay attention to in order to cultivate specific flavor qualities.

The research is part of an ongoing collaboration between Bohlmann, Jonathan Page, an adjunct professor in the botany department and Judith Booth, a graduate student. Page founded Anandia Labs, a biotechnology company that also does cannabis testing.

Cannabis resin components: monoterpenes (top row), sesquiterpenes (middle row), and cannabinoids (bottom row). GBGA = cannabigerolic acid; THCA = tetrahydrocannabinolic acid; CBDA = cannabidiolic acid. (Image credit : PLoS ONE)
Cannabis resin components: monoterpenes (top row), sesquiterpenes (middle row), and cannabinoids (bottom row). GBGA = cannabigerolic acid; THCA = tetrahydrocannabinolic acid; CBDA = cannabidiolic acid. (Image credit : PLoS ONE)

Thirty terpene synthase genes were found to contribute to various flavors in cannabis. This number is similar to the genes that play a role in grapevine flavor for the wine industry. The genes contribute to producing natural products such as myrcene, limonene and pinene in the cannabis plants. The fragrant molecules are known in the industry as terpenes.

Booth explained that myrcene produces the dank, earthy flavor characteristic of purple kush, while limonene produces a lemon-like flavor. The team also identified the gene that produces the signature terpene of cannabis, beta-caryophyllene. Beta-caryophyllene, along with other active ingredients in cannabis, interacts with cannabinoid receptors in human cells.

According to Bohlmann, the economic potential of a regulated cannabis industry is massive. Growers are however challenged by having to work with crops that are highly variable for its key natural product profiles and not standardized. He added that there is a need for consistent and high quality products made from varieties that are well defined.

The researchers also find it important to scrutinize whether the terpene compounds interact with the cannabinoid compounds that are responsible for the medicinal properties of cannabis, or not. One such cannabinoid compound is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

The full study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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