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Geneticists are Getting High on Marker-Assisted Selection for Cannabis

March 2, 2016

Editor’s Note: ESEV Genetics is a research & development company focused on cannabis breeding and genetics. Headquartered in New York but with an R&D center in Israel, the company recently partnered with Canadian cannabis producer Aphria to develop and bring to market the high-quality strains of medicinal cannabis.

While the partnership will initially focus on breeding for the most common cannabinoids Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD), the aim is to create more disease-specific strains using a variety of genetic tools and technologies. Agtech companies such as EvogeneRootility and Kaaima have adopted similar techniques to enhance crop performance.

Here Noam Chehanovsky, CTO and co-founder of the company, describes the benefit of market-assisted selection (MAS).


Cannabis is a controversial plant. On the one hand, it is defined as a dangerous drug; on the other hand, its therapeutic effects are indisputable, and it’s one of the safest drugs known. Moreover, cannabis can have many different effects: some strains are used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder while others treat pain; some strains have an energetic effect while others are relaxing, and some can make you hungry while others don’t.

Following over 50 years of active medical cannabis research in Israel, it is now apparent that different strains create different effects on different people. The source of this wide spectrum of effects is the cannabinoids and terpenes, known as the phytochemicals, which are produced on the flower of a female plant. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) are the most famous however there are more than 70 cannabinoids and hundreds of terpenes that have yet to be fully explored. And it’s becoming clear that the ranging effects of cannabis are due to different cannabinoid and terpene combinations.

At a genetic level, different genes produce the different cannabinoids and terpenes. Once the exact genes that are in charge of the biosynthetic pathway of cannabinoids and terpenes have been identified, tailor-made cannabis strains with specific cannabinoid and terpene content can be created to personalize the treatment of medical marijuana and to treat specific diseases. At present, there are only a few studies on cannabis genetics and genetic knowledge of the plant is limited. The genetic gap is filled by genetic mapping and next-generation-sequencing technologies. For this, there are two approaches used to create new strains: genetic modification (GM) and marker-assisted selection (MAS).

In GM, a DNA fragment that includes a desired gene, or genes, is artificially inserted into the plant’s genome and leads to a new trait without changing the general performance of the plant. For example, it is possible to create insect-resistant plants, produce high levels of rare cannabinoids or eliminate common cannabinoids in any strain. In fact, any gene can be used for GM, synthetic or natural, originating from cannabis or from any other organism; the possibilities are almost endless. However, as with the other crops, genetically modified plants are contentious and not accepted by those who claim they are harmful to human health and the environment, further exemplified when using an already controversial plant.

MAS technology is based on traditional breeding with the advantages of genetic knowledge. Breeding is the art of creating new strains by cross-pollinating different strains and mixing their genetics. In MAS, genetic information is used for the selection of plants that contain the desired genetic combination, leading to desired traits, such as specific cannabinoids and terpenes. The main advantage of MAS over traditional breeding is the ability to make smart decisions on which plant to grow and what plants to cross-pollinate. This can result in significant savings of both time and money. The primary limitation of MAS is the genetic source, limited only to the cannabis genetic pool which in turn, limits the number of outputs. However, the production of non-GM cannabis plants will be more widely accepted by cannabis patients and consumers as they are deemed safer.

Many techniques based on MAS are in development with some already being utilized by major agricultural companies in the US, having shifted from traditional breeding methods to adopting a more accurate, consistent and cost efficient breeding process while maximizing yield. The ability to breed out a strain’s propensity to disease, manipulate plant odor, plant height or bud versus leaf ratio using this methodology is already being explored.

With many countries in the Western world either on their way to, or having already legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes, advanced MAS technology will become a leading agrotech strategy in this sector, treating the cannabis plant like any other — an agricultural commodity.

Have news, tips, or want to write a guest commentary? Get in touch [email protected]


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