Editor’s note: Kevin McKernan is founder and chief science officer of Medicinal Genomics, a startup working on cannabis technology including safety testing capabilities. He was the first to sequence the cannabis genome. He is the former Team Leader for Research and Development at The Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research during the Human Genome Project. Here he writes about the technological future for the cannabis industry in the wake of Covid-19.
In the midst of a pandemic that forced us to decide what we could and could not do without, one of the most surprising decisions was made by 31 states that declared some portion of their state-legal cannabis businesses to be “essential.” It’s a good thing, too. If they hadn’t, the millions of consumers who use cannabis to treat everything from MS to epilepsy to plain old stress were able to bypass the already overburdened healthcare system. Those states were also still able to collect much-needed tax revenue (Colorado just passed the $5 billion-dollar mark after just 4 years of legalization), and more than 250,000 people did not lose their cannabis-related jobs. Even though this was an industry landmark event, it’s just cannabis’ opening act.
Cannabis was originally grown for fiber and nutritious seed and had a revered place in many ancient religious rituals. And although pharmacological use dates back to 2500 BC, we’re just beginning to understand the genetic and biochemical diversity cannabis contains. That understanding is estimated to create a $97B pharmaceutical factory in just six years.
A lot of changes need to happen, of course, to make that number. One of the most basic, but most important is the industry-wide adoption of the very strictest and most accurate molecular, genetics-based testing methods—the same technology being used for COVID-19 detection—multiplexed qPCR.
To begin with, those 31 states I mentioned all have different regulations about what constitutes clean, safe cannabis, and as the result of continued federal illegality, thriving illicit markets that don’t test at all, as evidenced by last year’s vaping crisis. Quite a few states do the bare minimum: they mandate the use of culture plating, the 130-year old technology developed to screen for pathogens in food by growing pathogens in little round trays of chicken soup. This is almost laughably inadequate because cannabis isn’t food and can’t be reliably tested with the same methods. Food is consumed by the digestive system. The majority of cannabis is consumed via the lungs, which presents a completely different set of problems.
Washing food does a reasonably good job of removing any lingering pathogens. But many cannabis pathogens are endophytes (living inside, rather than on, the plant) and must be carefully isolated and detected. Some endophytes, like four fatal strains of Aspergillus, don’t reliably grow in a culture and so cannot be quantitated by plating, a tragedy waiting to happen.
Cannabis fungicides are also showing up in vape pen extracted oils. This is an even bigger problem because while cannabinoids are usually enriched 3-4-fold in the extraction process, certain pesticides and fungicides are enriched over 10-100X. Take myclobutanil, which is activated when burned. It turns into hydrogen cyanide upon vaping and smoking. Even if we weren’t living in the new age of Covid-19, the consequences of inhaling even marginally impure cannabis can be potentially lethal for the immuno-compromised.
But testing isn’t the only area that’s going to be revolutionized by advanced technology. Genetics, microbiology, and blockchain, will all have an impact as well.
Genetics, microbiology, and blockchain
The recent publication of several cannabis genomes, for instance, has been the starting gun of a new information age in cannabis cultivation. Besides accurate pathogen detection, it is already enabling marker-assisted selection, CRISPR-Cas9 modifications, and microbiome complementation studies. With more than 90 cannabinoids—some of which haven’t even been studied yet—and more than a thousand terpenes and flavonoids, the number of possible combinations is staggering. With each combination producing a different effect or plant property, this extreme diversity will be one of the drivers of the cannabis industry’s remarkable growth.
The federal legalization of hemp via the USDA farm bill has also created a flurry of cannabis-related patent applications at the USPTO. Many of these patent applications focus on genome engineering and yield improvement. Most notably are many plant patents designed to protect cultivar specific formulations for specific conditions like Autism. While there are nutraceutical applications of full-spectrum cannabis oils, there are also highly purified (98% CBD) single-molecule isolations that have been approved by the FDA for epilepsy.
These developments are also creating a vast and diversified field of uses for cannabis as an agricultural crop that includes animal feed, paper fiber as a replacement for wood, building materials, and even clothing, to name just a few. Genomics information platforms that facilitate the advancement of these fields will also become invaluable tools.
For example, genetic blockchains will also play a role in protecting the authenticity of Appellations systems penned into California law to protect the geographic terroir of Mendocino or Humboldt cannabis. The California Appellations system intends to mimic the success of Italian and French wine Appellations to promote a vintage-like cache for many boutique cannabis growers struggling to remain competitive in a “Bud-Lite” legalization model.
And Seed-to-Sale tracking systems, which currently rely on RFID tags to track cannabis supply chains will be made far more secure and useful when they are based on the blockchain-stored genetic sequence of the plant. Such a system will be ideal for storing this data because it provides verifiable and hackproof time stamps of each transaction.
In addition to our work in pathogen detection and surveillance, one of the contributions we’ve made to further these dynamics is Kannapedia.net, a blockchain registry for cannabis genetics and the largest cannabis genomic database in the world. Kannapedia provides “23 &Me-like” genetic reports for valuable mother plants and etches proof of existence into Bitcoin and Dash blockchains. These genetic reports not only identify the cultivar, but also its closest relatives, key variants and heterozygosity in the mother plants, essential information for maximizing yield. Kannapedia.net rests on the most comprehensive genomic assemblies constructed in collaboration with our partners, Pacific Biosciences, Phase Genomics, Dash DAO, and New England Biolabs.
There is also an ongoing public CannAssemblethon made up of the world’s top DNA assembly experts working with Medicinal Genomics to construct the most comprehensive cannabis assembly to date. This database serves as a tremendous differentiator in the cannabis field. It is the guiding light for designing pathogen detection tests and constructing genomic guided breeding programs for many of our clients. We have seen this story before. Wheat, corn, and rice went through similar transformations as their genomes were sequenced and traits were mapped. Likewise, this information will greatly accelerate cannabis breeding and yield improvements.
These and other advances in genomics, blockchains, and microbiomes will make cannabis the world’s most valuable agricultural crop. The medical, food, and fiber markets will dwarf the recreational market and will have an enormously positive impact on our health care costs. The opiate epidemic, for instance, is already seeing relief from less-lethal cannabinoid replacement therapy. Alcohol, a prolific killer, is being replaced with healthier cannabinoids. Cancer patients, kids with autism and seizures, and everyone in between will experience cannabis’ curative effects. And tax revenues are paying for everything from after school programs to housing the homeless to mitigating the budget shortfalls caused by Covid-19.
It’s time to put the stigmas to bed and the pipettes to work and give cannabis a chance to work its magic. It’s that essential.