According to a new genome map for the cannabis plant, it’s been revealed that the genes for CBD and THC production originated from viral DNA.
Humans enjoy cannabis for various reasons and all those reasons are pegged on THC and CBD. While Tetrahydrocannabinoil (THC) is the psychoactive element that gives us a powerful high, Cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, is the cannabinoid with medicinal value. CBD is known as an effective pain reliever and also treats conditions such as epilepsy. According to new research, the cannabis plant got its ability to produce these two cannabinoids from ancient viruses.
According to the latest edition of Genome Research, scientists have for the very first time published a map showing the cannabis genome.
Their findings show that the cannabis plant got the ability to produce CBD and THC after it was attacked by a virus in ancient times. The virus apparently altered the DNA of the cannabis plant. The new findings also narrowed down on the gene that is responsible for the production of another cannabinoid, CBC (Cannabichromene). It’s also responsible for the differentiation of the hemp plant and cannabis. Hemp primarily produces CBD while the cannabis plant has lots of THC. At the same time, the gene also holds the key as to why some cannabis strains are more potent than others.
Todd Michael from the J. Craig Venter Institute of La Jolla, California, says that the main challenge when it comes to breeding is to establish the strain’s genome.
He added that most breeding activities are trial and error, where breeders are not sure of what to expect as far as genetics go. He said that a genome map is the starting point for high-quality breeding, not just for cannabis but for all plants.
Getting the genetic map for cannabis has been a tough order, says Todd. According to him, there have been lots of challenges, including legislation that barred researchers from studying the marijuana plant. The plant’s large size also made it extremely difficult for scientists to map its genomes. This explains why it took scientists so long to map the human genome, which is relatively big.
CBD and THC come from synthase genes that originate from the same chromosome. The synthase genes, however, do not exist freely but are lumped together with chunks of DNA known as retrotransposons, emanating from viruses. The viruses are known to have multiplied before spreading through the genome. It’s believed that the synthase genes came from one single gene. As the retrotransposons jumped around the genome, they triggered a mutation that led to various strains of the cannabis plant. This explains why some strains have the THCA gene and primarily produce THC as others have CBDA, producing CBD. The first draft version of the study was published in 2011. However, it was too fragmented and failed to clearly show where particular genes were located. In February, another firm claimed they had pieced together a genomes map for cannabis plants, but are yet to publish their findings.
Michael describes the mapping of the cannabis genome as revolutionary, as it will significantly affect the cannabis industry. For instance, breeders will soon be able to pinpoint the traits they need in a strain. Creating a fast growing strain. Other than improving the cannabis plant, the genome map is also expected to ease the process of fine tuning available strains to produce pure forms of CBD, THC among other cannabinoids.
Michael says a genome map for cannabis could help breeders and scientists to target specific pathways. For instance, people interested in psychoactive cannabis can alter the terpene profile of their strain to modulate the kind of high that they wish to have. He added that researchers could also use tools like CRISPR to edit the features of a strain genetically.
The role of ancient viruses in the development of the cannabis plant might appear too exciting to most people, but to some scientists, it’s not surprising. As a scientist, Michael said that ideally, this is how plants evolve and wondered why the media has aggressively publicized the genome map of the cannabis plant.
Michael says that the map will help researchers to understand which of the genes are active and which ones are inactive in the cannabis plant. With this kind of knowledge, they can easily pinpoint the areas they can tinker with in order to create a better plant.
One of the most positive points about the cannabis genome map, according to Michael, is that it opens a new future of possibilities where high CBD products can easily replace opioids. He added that research has conclusively shown that CBD and THC can really help when it comes to managing pain. Without a doubt, the new genome map is expected to spur lots of new work in both medical and recreational cannabis applications.
“The next few years will bring fantastic cannabis genomics,” states Michael.