Over the course of history, the success of large-scale cultivation has been in large part dependent on the extent to which a specific crop has been domesticated. The domestication of a crop is a process that takes decades at least, yet the end result is always the same: being able to develop cultivars whose intrinsic characteristics would allow them to thrive in different environments and to defend themselves from different pathogens. Examples of highly domesticated crops are wheat, or tomato - researching on the different varieties around the world, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses, have allowed growers to cultivate the crop with the traits they want them to have: more concentration of a specific chemical compound, resistance to specific pathogens and climate conditions etc. However, there is one crop that has never been domesticated - cannabis.
The domestication of cannabis
“Cannabis has never been domesticated,” says Ido Margalit, CEO of CanBreed. “The only thing the majority of people have been focusing on breeding in cannabis is the THC content. Thus, the genetic diversity is very minimal; additionally, there’s no gene banks storing all the different genetic traits that a cannabis plant could have, unlike wheat and tomato, for instance.” So, it goes without saying that the cannabis industry is still missing a crucial component in genetics, even though markets around the world have been growing. “Doing conventional breeding with cannabis is very challenging,” Ido further explains. “If we compare it to wheat, we can see how science has collected an incredible amount of information on what we call ‘genetic diversity’: this happened after thousands and thousands of years of domestication! With that information, you can then proceed to do cross-breeding and get stable cultivars with specific traits. Yet, with cannabis, this has never been possible, until now.”
Indeed, CanBreed has been able to achieve a major breakthrough, the effects of which are going to be everlasting for the industry as a whole. “At CanBreed, we have been able to use the 2020 Nobel-Chemistry prize winner CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to successfully edit cannabis,” Ido says. “CRISPR is one of the most amazing innovations of the 21st century, and we were really excited to apply this to cannabis.” At the same time, Ido points out that doing that was definitely challenging.
“We had to work hard to apply CRISPR to cannabis,” he continues. “It took us three years. Back then, a senior Plant scientist came to work for us. She did a post-doctorate in the leading plant research institute here in Israel, where they did gene editing in tomatoes. She was sure that in a few months, we would be capable to apply CRISPR to cannabis. Yet, months came by quickly, years passed, and we still didn’t have anything. This until a few months ago, when we finally found how to gene edit cannabis.”
Such a discovery is a true game-changer in the cannabis industry, as growers could soon rely on stable cultivars with specific genetic traits. “If you know the trait you want your plants to have, we could just use CRISPR and edit the genes so that growers get what they want,” Ido remarks. “The difference with traditional breeding is insurmountable, as CRISPR gives you a higher certainty of results in a fraction of the time: thanks to CRISPR, you can implement a specific genetic trait into a cannabis plant within one year – provided such a trait is known.”
Not only disease resistant
And indeed, the next step is to work on as many traits as possible with the ultimate goal of finally domesticating cannabis in mind. “We are working on several traits, all of them already patented by us, that are related to specific genes,” Ido explains. “As of now, the most advanced is the powdery mildew resistance trait. We already have a first cannabis plant edited for powdery mildew-resistance trait, and we are currently undergoing extensive trials. We expect to have the first seeds of this cultivar ready by the end of 2021, and a few months after, they should be ready to be marketed.”
Ido Margalit, CEO of CanBreed
Ido takes care to point out that the traits that he and his team are working on have been gathered by countless interviews with many growers around the world. “We are working on so many exciting things,” he says. “Other than disease resistance, we are also working on something related to the plant structure, and way, way more: we can basically do everything: we have eight patent applications, and all of them cover the most important traits for agronomic applications.”
Among the things that CanBreed is tackling, surely one that hemp growers are the most interested in is a cultivar with zero THC content. “It is of the utmost importance to provide hemp growers with stable genetics that are guaranteed not to produce a high THC concentration,” he says. “The problem with producing cannabis plants like that is that there is not enough genetic stability in the industry, and therefore every crop needs the utmost care in order to remain compliant. For instance, here in Israel, the cannabis authority is not allowing hemp cultivation because they are afraid people might use it for growing plants with high THC. So, we are working towards making the first hemp cultivar edited so it cannot express THC, so that it would allow it to be grown while the THC stays at zero percent. At the end of the day, the entire conventional seed business is all about providing stable genetics, and that’s exactly what we provide the cannabis industry with.”
Lastly, there are two very curious traits that CanBreed is working on. “On the one hand, we want to solve the issue with auto-flowering plants: the crossing of cannabis sativa cultivars with ruderalis cultivars will make for a very weak cannabinoid expression in the resulting hybrid: with gene editing, we can fix that. On the other hand, we also are working towards making an odorless cannabis variety: many growers have to resort to expensive equipment to contain the pungent smell of their cannabis operations; all of that could be easily solved if the cannabis itself would not produce any odor at all, right?”
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